It's always tough and sometimes a little hard to explain that your "Super Bowl" opens your season, but that's the way NASCAR has always been. The Daytona 500, "The Great American Race" got the 2010 season underway on Sunday, and despite the crowded calendar (NBA All-Star Game, Pebble Beach, the Winter Olympics) and problems with potholes at the track, most indications are that racing, especially on the NASCAR side, is on its way back from its recession doldrums. As Jamie McMurray held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final turn at Daytona, a race that ran well into primetime for TV partner FOX, fans around the world are hoping for more of the aggressive driving and more intense rivalries that drove the sport to such dizzying heights over the last 125 years.
What continues to make NASCAR so appealing remains its fan engagement. Even in a down economy and with TV ratings plateaued, the sport still is a living, breathing source for positive fan engagement and brand loyalty, and that loyalty is why the fans continue to turn out. A great cross section of the level of fan engagement is featured in Andrew Giangola's new book The Weekend Starts on Wednesday, which brings the reader into the lives of some, but not anywhere near all, of the sport's most passionate fans. It is those fans who have become the brand influencers for racing and set the mark for all sports in terms of engagement. The live and breathe the sport and decide which products to use because of what goes on on the track and with their drivers, and their loyalty rarely wavers.
To support those passionate fans and engage new ones, NASCAR has also started awareness campaigns in theaters across the country, designed to promote the personalities of the sport, has enhanced their digital presence and begun a more intense program to get their faces out to the widest possible audience going into the season. Another big help is marketing machine Danica Patrick's move to NASCAR from IRL, which has helped create even more buzz for Daytona and the ancillary events around the start of the season, such as next weekend's race in Fontana, California. McMurray's win, holding off Earnhardt Jr's challenge on Sunday, could also spell the birth of yet another rivalry and give a new name to those known by casual sports fans today, which is also essential when you are looking to touch every possible person with an ancillary dollar to spend.
Does NASCAR have some potholes to fix along the way that maybe still be tougher than the ones that slowed Sunday's race? Yes. The auto industry may be recovering, but is still nowhere near where it was a few years ago and may never be there again in terms of brand dollars invested in motor sports. The races are expensive to run and the amount of time and dollars spent by fans to travel across the country to engage their stars is still questionable. NASCAR has to look to additional ways... digital, TV, experiential in market, and a greater push to get the drivers out of the cars when they are not racing and into the markets of where their fans are... to keep the sport thriving. One thing they did get on Sunday was a very exciting race and a finish which was among the closest in Daytona in years. Excitement like that is what every sport wants in their greatest showcase event... a reason for those passionate fans to engage and for the casual fans to tune in the next week. Even with racing's "Super Bowl" in the books on week one, the best should still be yet to come in 2010.