NASCAR Revs Up Latinos

NASCAR goes full throttle into the U.S. Hispanic market, with corporate marketers who traditionally stuck to soccer and baseball coming onboard.

Adweek-MyM-cover

November 2005 issue of Adweek’s Marketing y Medios
By Moses Frenck

It was Labor Day Weekend in Fontana, Calif., 45 minutes east of Los Angeles, and NASCAR Busch Series driver Carlos Contreras was suited up to race, wearing an outfit literally covered by brand logos from head to toe.

Displayed prominently on his chest, back, sleeves, pant legs and cap was the logo for Supercuts, his main sponsor. The hair salon chain, which sponsors NASCAR Busch Series teams owned by FitzBradshaw Racing, specifically requested that Mexico City native Contreras be in the driver’s seat to compete in the Ameriquest 300 race at California Speedway. Many of Contreras’ fans were in attendance, several of whom had followed the superstar from the Mexican circuits and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

While no one would dispute that soccer retains the commanding lead as the sport of choice among Latinos, NASCAR’s goal is to grow to be a formidable foe. “Soccer will always be king, but NASCAR will be number two,” Contreras predicts.

FOLLOWING LATINOS

Most marketers seeking to reach Hispanics through sports will most often choose soccer, boxing and baseball, but there are a handful of sports not traditionally associated with Latinos that are quickly gaining popularity. Professional football and basketball have made great strides during the past few years, and tennis and golf are gaining visibility. But it is NASCAR (formally known as the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) that is making the biggest impact.

In the past five years, NASCAR has transformed itself from being a sport that appealed primarily to Southern white males to being accepted by all types of Americans and mainstream sponsors. NASCAR’s pervasive branding and licensing has made its way into just about everything that can be marketed, from ladders to pudding- snacks to NASCAR-branded produce.

Once a regional racing series in the Southeast, NASCAR is now a multibillion dollar sport that attracts an average of 100,000 fans to its races each week, with millions more watching on television and following along on the Web. But like all other corporations seeking to make money, NASCAR has its eye on growth. “Our focus as a company for the near future is on the U.S. market, and how we can better grow and build NASCAR in the United States,” NASCAR COO George Pyne said in a statement earlier this year.

So it stands to reason that the U.S. Hispanic market — otherwise known as the 41 million-strong, $700 billion market — is on NASCAR’s radar screen.

While corporate sponsors have tracked the tremendous growth among the non-Southern, general-market side, they are also acutely aware that Latinos comprise close to 9 percent of NASCAR’s fan base. The number of Hispanic fans increased 23 percent between 1999 and 2002, according to an ESPN Sports poll released in 2003. The data revealed that during that period of growth Hispanic NASCAR fans exceeded Latino fan growth in all other major sports areas.

“Hispanics love cars, they love racing, but they aren’t sure if they’re welcome at NASCAR races, if they’re really wanted there,” says Mike Contreras, a writer for the newsletter Insider Racing News. “But once they go to a race and realize they are welcome, they immediately become fans. My brother-in-law is as Mexican as you can get, and after I took him to his first NASCAR race, he got hooked. Now, he would rather go to race than stay home and watch soccer — and that says a lot, because he is hard-core Mexican.”

Contreras, no relation to driver Carlos Contreras, says Latinos simply need to feel that NASCAR is making efforts to court them. “They need to see the outreach, they need to see that NASCAR wants them to be included.”

And NASCAR does want them included.

“We want to look like America,” says Roger VanDerSnick, NASCAR vice president of marketing. “We want to be representative of the total U.S. population at the driver and competitor level as well as the fan level. There is certainly a business opportunity there for us, the team owners, the drivers, tracks and sponsors, but it’s also the right thing to do.”

EXPOSURE FROM HOMELAND, THEN U.S.

Carlos Contreras, 35, had traveled from Mexico City to compete in the California race, his third NASCAR Busch Series race this year. But his first NASCAR race of the season, in March, was one that took place much closer to home: the Telcel Motorola Mexico 200 at Autódromo Hermanos Rodriguez raceway in Mexico City.

The race was the first time the Busch Series had ventured outside of the U.S. and the first time NASCAR had been in Mexico. It also served as the visible declaration by NASCAR — considered one of the most successful entertainment marketing machines of late — that it is serious about going after Hispanics.

Nascar-Fern

NASCAR’s decision to include a Busch Series race in Mexico was a huge success, says VanDerSnick, with U.S. Hispanic tune-in four to five times the normal amount. The event drew 94,229 paid spectators, with 10 Mexican drivers competing in the race, including Mexican auto racing legend Adrian Fernandez, who was sponsored by Lowe’s Home Improvement and driving the Lowe’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Michel Jourdain Jr., sponsored in part by Kraft Foods and behind the wheel of the Centrix Financial Ford. A non-NASCAR race weekend at the Autódromo last year drew a three-day total of more than 400,000 fans, including 221,011 on race day. While an official decision to return to Mexico in 2006 has not been made, VanDerSnick says, “We certainly anticipate going back there.”

Anthony Eros, president of San Diego-based Latino Sports Marketing, says that while NASCAR’s efforts to target Hispanics is admirable and smart in terms of the growth of Hispanic market, the focus should be in the United States. “It’s great that NASCAR went to Mexico, but it was not a big surprise that they had a large fan turnout,” he says. “Motor sports have been very popular in Latin America for years and years, long before NASCAR became mainstream in the U.S.”

Eros believes that NASCAR is a viable marketing tool to reach Hispanics in the United States, but that proper brand relevance and grass-roots marketing must be applied to reach the right segment.

“Hispanics have an affinity for cars and racing, but the sponsors need to be relevant,” he says. “You’re not going to reach millions and millions and millions of Hispanics through one sport, but if you’re trying to reach a certain segment of Latinos, NASCAR could be the right option.”

For major mainstream brands, such as Supercuts, Lowe’s Home Improvement and Kraft Foods, joining with NASCAR to reach Latinos in the United States is a win-win decision — which is why Contreras was not the sole Latino racing on Labor Day weekend in California.

“To have three Mexican drivers in one race was very important for NASCAR’s efforts to reach Hispanics in the U.S.,” says Contreras, adding that racetrack officials estimated that 20 percent of fans in the grandstands that day were Hispanic. “A few years ago many Latinos didn’t know what NASCAR was.”

GETTING THE WORD OUT

In the weeks leading up to the California race, NASCAR launched a series of multicultural events aimed at raising awareness about NASCAR in Hispanic communities and to help increase diversity throughout the sport. For the first event in the six-week, grass-roots marketing campaign, NASCAR and sponsors Sprint Nextel, Checkers/Rally’s and Weber Grills hosted a tailgate party at a regional race that drew approximately 400 Latinos. Popular Los Angeles-based radio personality Renán Almendárez Coello, host of El Cucuy de la Mañana on KLAX 97.9 FM “La Raza,” was the on-site master of ceremonies and grand marshall of the evening’s race. Fans had the opportunity to meet Contreras, Fernandez and Jourdain, as well as NASCAR Drive for Diversity drivers Jesús Hernández and Tommy Lane.

“The event at Irwindale Speedway was the first event in our six-week outreach to further educate the Hispanic population in the Los Angeles market about NASCAR,” VanDerSnick says. “The program is part of NASCAR’s Hispanic consumer marketing plan to bring the sport to all communities.”

He says that media partnerships with KVEA Telemundo Channel 52, KLAX’s “La Raza,” KSSE 107.1 FM “Super Estrella” and Hoy newspaper kept NASCAR in the forefront with Latinos in Southern California.

“These multicultural events are important to better educate new fans about NASCAR and help increase diversity throughout the industry,” says Tish Sheets, NASCAR director of diversity. “By bringing the NASCAR experience to the Hispanic community, we hope to raise awareness about our sport and its opportunities.” NASCAR’s outreach effort includes bilingual fan guides at certain events. The organization also has set up an office in Mexico to sponsor races and groom Mexican drivers.

In addition to an increasing fan base, an ESPN Sports study revealed that 73 percent of Hispanic NASCAR fans are more likely to feel loyal toward sponsors than Hispanic fans of any other major sport. That’s in contrast to loyalty felt by Hispanic fans for the NBA (68 percent), the NFL and MLB (67 percent), the PGA (65 percent) and the NHL (63 percent).

The striking NASCAR figure indicates why companies such as Supercuts choose to sponsor Contreras, particularly at races in large Hispanic markets such as California, Arizona, Texas and Florida.

“NASCAR was doing quite a push in California trying to open up the sport to more diversity, and Los Angeles is a big market for us,” says Patti Langworthy, brand director at Supercuts. “We know the exposure is there, and we wanted to capitalize on the brand loyalty of NASCAR fans.”

Judging from the number of attendees at California Speedway, there are plenty of fans. “There were people there that came from Mexico, Chicago, who were wearing Carlos Contreras T-shirts,” says the man himself. “It was a great feeling.” Contreras says it is imperative for NASCAR to have Latino drivers if it wants to attract Latino fans. “As a Hispanic, you go to support an athlete, and if you’re Mexican, you’re likely to root for the Mexican driver.”

OWNERSHIP AND SPORTSMANSHIP

Cuban-born Armando Fitz, who owns FitzBradshaw Racing along with his wife, Mimi, and NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox broadcaster Terry Bradshaw, says he recruited Contreras because of his success in the Desafío Corona Series — the Mexican equivalent of NASCAR’ s Nextel Cup series — and his participation in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “Carlos is a very good driver, and we look forward to seeing great things from him,” Fitz says. “At the same time, he has a lot of fans from Mexico and he can draw in more Hispanic fans.”

FitzBradshaw Racing, the only Hispanic-owned team in NASCAR, fields three Dodge Chargers in the Busch Series: the #12, sponsored by Supercuts and Hot Tamales; the #14, sponsored by the U.S. Navy; and the #40, sponsored by Jani-King, Goulds Pumps and Cottman Transmissions. Earlier this season, FitzBradshaw Racing became the first organization in NASCAR to be certified a minority-owned business.

Goulds Pumps, an industrial water-pump manufacturer that also sponsors Contreras, does so in part, Fitz says, because the company has a lot of business in South America and wants to align itself with Hispanics.

Fitz says a dream is to assemble an all-Latino team: driver, crew chief and mechanics. “Having a Hispanic driver and Hispanic team will definitely bring in Latinos,” he says. However, he stresses, his goal is to find the best people, not simply because they have a Spanish surname. “There is a lot of great Latino talent out there, and I want to develop minority talent and give that opportunity to someone because it’s the right thing to do.”

Contreras is excited about the idea. “Latinos would respond very well to such a team, it would be great for the sport, and it will help bring in new Latino talent,” he says.

Jourdain is one of those Latino talents who has gained recognition among U.S. sponsors. The son of well-known Mexican race-car driver Michel Jourdain Sr., the 29-year-old has been racing since he was 12. In January, he became the first Mexican driver to be signed for a full season in the Busch Series. Among his sponsors is Kraft Foods. In July, Kraft raised its sponsorship to primary status for a race at Chicagoland Speedway to promote its Oscar Mayer brand.

“With Chicago, a market rich in Hispanic culture, we wanted a greater presence in this growing community with the Oscar Mayer brand,” says Michael Tilley, associate director of sports marketing and strategic alliances at Kraft Foods. “We’re excited to work with Michel and introduce NASCAR racing to the many Hispanic consumers who may never have experienced the sport and do so in a way that is relevant to their culture.”

Kraft has been a NASCAR sponsor since 1998, and today its Team Kraft Racing sponsors 12 NASCAR drivers and three Indy Racing League drivers. Tilley says Kraft’s sponsorship of a Hispanic driver is an extension of its philosophy and an opportunity the company could not pass up.

“We feel that we should represent and resemble our consumer with our brand, but we want to be legitimate and authentic, not just have a bilingual part,” he says. “When we were approached about Michel, we jumped at the opportunity. Hispanics have an extreme amount of pride to have Michel Jourdain racing in NASCAR, and they really respect Kraft for doing this with Michel.”

Tilley points to the high rate of receptivity in large Hispanic markets. While he cannot disclose the amount that Kraft spends on NASCAR sponsorships, Tilley says, “I can tell you that we are very satisfied with the return on our investment.”

Such investments can be significant. Primary corporate sponsorships in the Busch Series can cost $4 million to $5 million a year, while sponsoring a team in the Nextel Cup Series can exceed $15 million to $20 million per season, according to industry estimates. Secondary sponsorships can reach $1 million.

Tilley has high praise for Jourdain as a driver, but more importantly as a person who represents his brand. “Together we are building both of our brands — Kraft’s products and Michel’s own brand as a NASCAR competitor.”

In addition to driving the car, Jourdain participates in various Kraft appearances, advertising, packaging and display units, and understands his marketing role. “I feel very honored to have such a well-known and respected company like Kraft as one of my sponsors,” he says. “It is very important to represent the Oscar Mayer brand and Kraft in the Hispanic market.”

Jourdain agrees that all-Hispanic teams could further draw Latino fans to the sport and consumers to the sponsoring brands. “We need more Latino faces,” he says. “We as Latinos are very much about our roots. We’re very patriotic, so we get behind teams and drivers that are Latino. I feel that every week there are more Latinos at the races and more Hispanic media.” Team owner Greg Pollex of ppc Racing agrees. “Michel is well known and a great spokesman to the Hispanic community, and sponsors like Kraft recognize his potential with their marketing efforts,” he says.

Kraft’s Tilley says he foresees a long-term relationship with NASCAR. “As long as NASCAR continues to keep its high morals, goals and family-oriented approach, and as long as it represents the true face of America — Hispanics, African Americans, Caucasians — we’ll continue to be a part of it.”

And since everything in NASCAR is tied to marketing, Ford Motor Co. signed Jourdain to represent the company in a Ford Taurus race car.

“Our philosophy has always been that we want our Ford Racing drivers to better reflect the Ford customer and working with talented drivers like Michel helps accomplish our goal,” said Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology, in January, when he announced that Jourdain had been signed to a multiyear contract to drive Ford Tauruses in the Busch Series. He called the move “another important step in promoting diversity in NASCAR.”

DRAWN TO A LEGEND

On the Thursday prior to the Labor Day race at California Speedway, between 300 and 400 people descended on a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in Pico Rivera, Calif., to meet their hero Adrian Fernandez, who was there to show off his race car, greet fans and sign autographs.

Fernandez, 42, has superstar status in Mexico, having raced successfully since he was 8 years old. His #5 Lowe’s Monte Carlo is designed similarly to the other cars Lowe’s competes with in NASCAR, with the exception of its green, white and red Mexican-flag paint scheme.

“Mexican drivers are like rock stars in their country,” says Tom Lamb, vp of consumer marketing for Lowe’s. “With Adrian, we have the opportunity to leverage this rock star in front of Hispanics.”

Lamb says the race in Mexico earlier this year solidified for Lowe’s, as well as marketers, the effectiveness of NASCAR to reach Hispanics. “It’s what opened our eyes to the opportunity,” he says. “The Mexico race got us unbelievable attention in the U.S. among Hispanic customers and especially among our own associates.”

During a media event earlier this year in Daytona Beach, Fla., to promote the fact that Fernandez would be racing for Lowe’s, the media center was overflowing. “I’ve never seen it [like that] before,” Lamb says. “It was at that point that we realized we had something extraordinary with Adrian.”

Lamb says that practically all print and broadcast media from Mexico were in attendance as well as U.S. media outlets such as The New York Times and USA Today that traditionally do not cover routine NASCAR team announcements. “You have huge, huge attention to this guy,” he says. “He’s like a Michael Jordan-type star in Mexico.”

Lowe’s has been involved with NASCAR for 30 years. The company is the title sponsor of Lowe’s Motor Speedway near its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., where a late-season race took place last month. Lowe’s hosted fans, customers and associates at the track with events promoting Fernandez and the team’s other drivers. Unfortunately, Fernandez was part of a violent crash after making contact with another car on lap 90 of 200. “That was one of the hardest hits I’ve ever had,” Fernandez said later, adding that he was OK.

The track, which had been resurfaced, was blamed for many of the crashes resulting from blown tires. The Busch Series race saw a record 14 cautions, with only 20 of the 43-car starting field running by night’s end. Lowe’s other drivers in that race, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, also wrecked. On a high note for Lowe’s, however, Johnson still managed to win the NASCAR Nextel Cup race the following night, his fourth consecutive win at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Lowe’s will continue to promote local events involving Fernandez for the remainder of the season and has placed the driver prominently on its Spanish-language Web site to tie in with those events. NASCAR’s last three races will take place in Dallas-Ft. Worth the weekend of Nov. 5, Phoenix the weekend of Nov. 12 and Homestead-Miami the weekend of Nov. 19 — all significant Hispanic markets. Fernandez participates in in-store promotions and serves as the brand’s spokesman to Latinos. He is featured in a Lowe’s spot on Spanish-language TV and last month worked on a second. “Adrian has helped us reach out not just to the homeowner but to contractors who are our business customers,” Lamb says.

“For NASCAR to grow it needs to diversify,” Fernandez says. “There is definitely a Hispanic fan base, and I’m happy to be a part of that.”

Like his fellow marketers who sponsor NASCAR teams, Lamb would not disclose Lowe’s investment, saying only that the company is “more than satisfied with the return on investment, and we continue to invest.”

Lamb says that what makes a NASCAR sponsorship unique, compared with other sports, is that the sponsor becomes the team itself. As opposed to Lowe’s having a 30-second TV spot or displaying a billboard on a soccer field, fans and employees root for the “Lowe’s car” or “Team Lowe’s.”

“We do a lot in the world of soccer, especially on the local level,” Lamb says. “But we, like many marketers seeking to reach the Hispanic market, were looking exclusively at soccer. It was a mistake, and we realize that the use of motor sports is a huge opportunity.”

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