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Happy Hour: “Pursuing Younger Fans?” That’s the Marketing Department’s Job

I read with interest Scene Daily’s recent interview with Lesa France Kennedy, the CEO of the International Speedway Corporation that owns the tracks that make up about a third of NASCAR’s schedule. Kennedy is the sister of NASCAR CEO Brian France, as you all well know, so one would expect them both to have similar approaches to running the sport.

Kennedy did make a point in the article that made sense. When asked about NASCAR’s core fanbase being older and how NASCAR can appeal to younger fans, she replied, “You can do both… provide a good guest experience and a good product on the track, that’s going to appeal to everyone overall.”

That sounds like a blinding flash of the obvious. But what that says, in a nutshell, is that you don’t need to change the formula to appeal to a younger audience… hardly a business model that NASCAR has followed in recent years. They still can’t seem to simply let things be for long, even if they’re making some more palatable adjustments these days.

Running a successful business is about making customers happy and keeping them happy, regardless of the demographic. It generally isn’t rocket science. Want to attract new customers? Provide a good product. Want to keep the customers you have? Keep providing a good product.

You may have seen the bank commercial recently where an adult is not allowing a kid to have ice cream, but at the same time happily giving another kid a big scoop because he’s “newer.” And the narrator says, “Even little kids know it’s wrong to treat new friends better than old ones.” But that’s exactly what NASCAR did, and now they are, as Kennedy readily admits, trying to win back the old friends.

NASCAR assumed, like most in the entertainment industry, that the younger generation has a devastating ADD problem and must be given short-term bursts of excitement at all times. (Thank God baseball doesn’t have this problem.) Most of the significant changes in the last decade have been geared to that mentality: green-white-checkereds, double-file restarts with lead lap cars, the Chase.

Take the logic a step further and NASCAR’s thinking must be that racing itself just isn’t enough anymore. So rather than leave the marketing of the sport to the marketing people, the sport chose instead to muck with the rules.

The Chase was the best example of NASCAR catering to an instant gratification mindset, a stereotype of a generation that can’t fathom life without the Internet. Six years later, articles are appearing with rumblings that NASCAR is once again considering “tweaking” the Chase.

It is insulting to both young and old NASCAR fans to keep insisting that this turd can be polished. Why does NASCAR think a younger audience will be any more accepting of a contrived, phony resetting of points late in the season? Why would a 25-year-old Jeff Gordon fan want to see his hero’s large points lead wiped out any more than a 75-year-old fan would? I don’t know that any particular demographic was any more or less copacetic with the questionable debris caution at Michigan. The Chase is the ultimate phony debris caution.

NASCAR, probably more so than most sports, has a core fanbase of folks who have had their love of the sport passed down to them from their fathers. That is not something to be trifled with lightly, as NASCAR now knows. It means a great deal to people. I sense that the sport’s appeals to a casual, younger audience disillusioned a core base so much that the younger and newer fans became turned off with it, not tuning in anymore because Dad doesn’t tune in anymore.

Kennedy seemed like she was getting that with her quote about a good product on the track attracting fans of all ages. Then she began talking about how young people are more concerned with things like green initiatives today, and as a fan it makes you want to start beating your head against the wall again. How many young non-NASCAR fans would be watching every week if NASCAR would just mandate that the cars run on French fry oil?

Ten years ago NASCAR didn’t “tweet” updates or pursue Facebook subscribers or run ads on iPhones. And they were growing their fanbase just fine. They replaced dearly departed fans with young ones just fine. They didn’t need to focus on a younger generation; it was getting on board. The audience was growing because there was a good product. The Bristol night race was once a spectacular event.

There are plenty of ways a younger audience can be reached without changing the entire format of the racing. The marketing folks have made a point to appeal to the departed longtime fan with commercials touting standardized start times and boys, have at it racing. There is no reason to think they can’t reach a younger crowd too. They could run ads with fathers taking sons to the racetrack or watching TV and rooting for rival drivers together. It wouldn’t be hard to do.

But no matter how the rules are altered to add to the excitement, some races are going to be better than others, and some championship battles are going to be better than others.

The whole point of some races being classics is that they stood out from all the rest. That is going to be the case no matter how many attempts there are to finish under green.

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