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NASCAR Fans Have Opportunities Other Sports Only Dream Of

Updated on August 23, 2013
Dale Earnhardt Jr. signing autographs for fans on pit lane before a race
Dale Earnhardt Jr. signing autographs for fans on pit lane before a race

Among American sports leagues, no organization offers the same level of fan interaction that NASCAR provides. Their drivers are readily accessible to the media, conducting countless interviews to promote the sport. Pit passes offer fans the opportunity to actually walk through the garage and pit road areas prior to the race itself. Thanks to a myriad of sponsor-based appearances, fans can get the opportunity to meet their favorite drivers in a more personal setting during the actual race season. And sometimes, those come together all in one setting. NASCAR may not be America's past-time (baseball) or national obsession (football) but the stick and ball sports could learn something from their 200mph brethren.

Being a competitive race team requires sponsorship. Teams need speed to be successful and with such limited rules on what can be done to the car that speed can only be found through research on and off the track. Sponsors want to see a return on their investment; advertising dollars are often among the first items cut back when a company needs to cut costs. So NASCAR and its teams are constantly looking for new ways to engage sponsors and teams with the fans. They want to offer those sponsors a unique experience that no amount of money can buy elsewhere.

One such example is Lionel Racing's “Ride of Your Life” promotion running through September 12th. The contest offers fans a chance to win a trip to the fall Chase race in Charlotte, a meeting with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the JR Motorsports team, tons of gear and tickets to the weekend's races. Most importantly, the winner gets to take a handful of laps around the Charlotte Motor Speedway track with Dale behind the wheel.

Lionel's 2012 contest winner takes a wild ride at Charlotte

In what other sport do fans get the opportunity to physically experience what it's like to be a part of the sport at its highest level? Imagine the possibilities if other sports were to run this kind of event. In basketball you'd have Lebron James offering to play a game of two on two with you and three of your buddies. Or an NFL contest where the winner got to line up behind center, directing a two minute drill in practice against the team's defense. You could experience the thrill of tossing a touchdown to hotshot young NFL receiver A.J. Green- or the agony of James Harrison coming off the edge to implant you into the field turf. Think you have what it takes to stop a Zdeno Chara slap shot coming at over 100mph? You'll have to wait for the NHL to jump on this particular bandwagon to do it.

Clint Bowyer competed in a shopping cart race with a fan. That's not something you'll see every day
Clint Bowyer competed in a shopping cart race with a fan. That's not something you'll see every day

NASCAR's media engagement teams are also a consistent winner. While the individual race teams all have their own media relations responsibilities (not to mention the media relations NASCAR's television partners employ), they all work out of the same playbook. The goal is to promote the sport and to make drivers available. The thought seems to be that if potential fans get to know NASCAR's drivers it will explode their preconceptions about NASCAR as a “redneck” sport.

The plan works, too. Jim Rome, perhaps America's best known independent sports personality, was once a detractor of the sport. He once derided the sport as “Neckcar” and dismissed it as, “just 43 rednecks in flying billboards turning left... there has to be someone who speaks passable English.” NASCAR didn't respond by cracking back on the talk show host; the wore him down with reality. Driver after driver appeared on Rome's radio program and annihilated the stereotype- so much so that he began running a post-interview disclosure praising the drivers for their ability to be intelligent, frank, and open on the show. He's even had drivers work as correspondents for his television show and NASCAR is not a prominent part of Rome's website and show.

Carl Edwards worked as a correspondent for Jim Rome's ESPN television show

Complete with group photo, Jeff Gluck's "Tweetup" meetings at the track give fans a chance to meet a variety of racing personalities
Complete with group photo, Jeff Gluck's "Tweetup" meetings at the track give fans a chance to meet a variety of racing personalities

NASCAR fans also get the chance to get up and close to drivers and team members thanks to social media. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski are fantastic follows on Twitter; they give glimpses into what life is like for a Sprint Cup driver and regularly interact with fans. Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano's on-track feud this year began in large part thanks to their respective, “genius teammate” tweets after February's Daytona 500. Fans who followed both were right in the middle of it all.

Twitter also provided the genesis of the NASCAR Tweetup events held on race weekends. NASCAR writer Jeff Gluck began organizing the events to let fans, writers and team members get together in an informal atmosphere several hours before a scheduled race. While not officially sanctioned by the series, the tweetups were supported by NASCAR and its teams. The get togethers have grown in size over the past few years as more big name drivers join in the fun. Drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin all made appearances answering questions and signing autographs for the small groups who attended.

Pit pass holders have virtually free reign to wander about the garage area prior to the race
Pit pass holders have virtually free reign to wander about the garage area prior to the race

This isn't something that's on the radar for most NFL teams. When's the last time Tom Brady met with a group of New England Patriots fans from Twitter? Or the last time he did so a few hours before kickoff? Who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall when an 18 year old Patriot intern suggested that idea to Bill Belichick. Yet even if major stars are probably not in the cards, teams could benefit by having their own Twitter-based activities. Tom Brady isn't going to show up for an event like that but hardcore fans of the team might be interested in what Logan Mankins has to say about protecting Brady.

NASCAR also provides fans with the unique chance to step onto the playing field and virtually into the locker room on game day. Most tracks offer a pit pass ticket package on race weekends. Those packages enable fans to leave the stands and step onto the track. They can wander up and down pit lane while the teams set up their pit stalls. They can stroll through the garage area and stand a handful of steps away from where the teams make their final adjustments before rolling out onto the grid. At times they can see their favorite drivers discussing strategy for the race or watch those drivers head into the pre-race meeting. For the minimal increase in ticket price, the increase in fan engagement is enormous.

The Hendrick Motorsports garage lets visitors see the team's past and future all in one stop
The Hendrick Motorsports garage lets visitors see the team's past and future all in one stop
Want to put on these gloves? You might well get your chance
Want to put on these gloves? You might well get your chance

The individual teams also allow fans to enter many of the team buildings for tours. With most of the teams located in and around the Charlotte, NC area, fans visiting for one of the area's races have the opportunity to watch the teams build the cars that will later compete on the track. Some take that opportunity a step further; Hendrick Motorsports has a museum and fan store in addition to allowing fans to tour the facility throughout the week. Contests like the previously mentioned Lionel Racing “Ride of your life” also provide a chance for fans to spend time with the teams that is unheard of elsewhere. NFL teams are not offering fans the chance to sit in on practice and watch the team try out new plays; in fact, teams go to great lengths to prevent outside eyes from seeing what takes place inside their facilities.

So while NASCAR has several major issues facing the sport, accessibility isn't one of them. The sanctioning body and teams offer unprecedented opportunities to be a part of the race weekend. Its drivers are available to fans and to the media at large. They're intelligent, well-spoken, and project an image NASCAR could only dream of in years past. The only limitation from a fan's perspective is the amount of time you want to devote in the effort. This is one area where both NASCAR and its teams “get it”. General sports fans would benefit if more leagues did likewise.

Now it's your turn!

Would you be more interested in other sports if they provided the same level of fan involvement that NASCAR does?

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