FINALLY happens tomorrow….
The Indy 500 is tomorrow. A race that, under normal circumstances, happens the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, was postponed due to COVID-19. I’m an auto-racing fan and I’ve done quite a bit of work with NASCAR over the years. Some of it has been promotional for clients, some has been as support for a dear friend that was a car owner, and some of it was just happenstance. Regardless, it was a tremendous amount of fun that I often find myself reminiscing about the incredibly things I experienced over the years. I watched Indy 500 quals last weekend and I have to admit that when it became clear that there would be another Andretti starting on the Pole, it gave me chills.
For a kid from the sticks, I have had some pretty incredible professional opportunities. I have to say, I am most grateful for the time I was allowed to spend working in stock and open wheel racing. I can honestly say to anyone who deems NASCAR just a silly pastime, please allow me to accompany you to any track (once these COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, of course) and I promise that you will leave feeling completely different about this type of auto racing.
I was a kid in the 80’s, what my dear friend Dick Bahre liked to call “the Good ‘Ol Days” of racing. The sport was finally coming into itself; it was growing in popularity with the first few million dollar sponsorship deals being put in place, TV deals being negotiated, and fantastic new talent finding their way into the field to challenge the original guys that elevated the series to the level of popularity that France Senior always imagined it might enjoy.
Raced were broadcast on TBS and TNN. The idea of sponsorship was still new in this arena but everyone understood that the more screen time your sponsor received, the better it was for your team. Eventually they the came to realize that it was also better for the sport, and track promoters realized just how many opportunities existed to leverage the brands and companies supporting not just the drivers, but the entire series and the individual televised races each week.
My company got involved in promoting a healthy beverage that had never before been sold in a resealable, to-go, container. They wanted to find a driver to partner with in order to promote this new innovation to Moms and families; and fortunately for us the marketing director understood the power of NASCAR and the sport’s demographic. We jumped in with both feet and rolled up our sleeves, we knew a few popular, successful drivers that represented family values each of whom did not have a beverage sponsor of any type.
It took a few weeks but we signed a deal with this amazing driver (he happened to also be a Ginger from the great state of Maine, and that made my heart very happy) and negotiated the terms of our contract for the promotion. The client wanted to sample at key retail locations in each of the regions where their dairies were willing to contribute to the marketing budget and NASCAR had regularly scheduled Cup races over the course of the summer. They didn’t know how to “hook” the consumer into the trial and purchase on-site. They had coupons to offer, but not much else. We had, of course, offered up a “show car” with the brand’s pain scheme but didn’t have it fully fleshed out. I suggested allowing kids (which turned into more adults than kids) having the opportunity to sit in the show car and have a photo taken, which we would post to a website for family and friends to see and a copy to send home with them as they left the store. (This was MANY years ago, we didn’t have the tech to simply text or quickly email the photos to consumers then).
We also had 1:64th replica cars made, limited to 10,000, which consumers could receive with 5 of the new resealable “tops” from the product and $1. (To this day, nearly 20 years later, we occasionally still receive a random email asking if any of these collectibles still exist and if they do, how they can be purchased.)
We attended races in 4 markets over the course of that summer, but 6 of the client’s key regions were allowed to redeem “tops” for the replica cars. At two of the races, we had a day or two of driver autograph sessions, which were so incredibly popular we had to turn people away after the first 45 minutes of opening because we knew that the driver would never be able to meet & greet the entire line. It was a highly successful promotion. So much so, in fact, that the driver’s primary sponsor took umbridge with the success and asked for a meeting to determine exactly HOW we were achieving this success with the small budget allowed by the client. (A very popular CPG brand that has been with the sport for at least 3 decades.)
Over the course of these few summer and early fall months, I found myself in the enviable position of spending an enormous amount of time with our show car driver (retired team/car owner) Dick Bahre. He would tell me stories, and what stories they were! Crazy things from filling the hollow tube chassis with ball bearings to meet the weight pre-race only to let them “go” mid-race which benefitted the driver two-fold: 1) the bearings would send cars behind the driver into a skid and 2) the reduced weight of the car allowed it to achieve higher speeds. Such crazy-but-true things that made me laugh so hard that at the end of the day my stomach was sore.
He would take me around the tracks we visited and introduce me to the drivers, team owners, broadcasters and other usual suspects that had been around the sport since the early days. I would sit and listed to them talk, gaining valuable knowledge and becoming privy to them “spinning tales” of the now crazy shit that happened once-upon-a-time during the sport’s infancy. Each story more unbelievable and goddamned funny than the next.
We talked about all kinds of racing stuff. He appreciated open wheel racing just as much as he loved NASCAR stock car racing. When I told him I really loved Indy and F1, he said that he knew I was a good “kid”. We all knew the owner of the Procono Track back then, and I had the rare opportunity to meet a few Andretti family members one weekend. I walked away feeling like I was floating. Not only had I met The King (Richard Petty), Kyle and Kyle’s son Adam before he tragically passed away after wrecking (coincidentally, Adam died at the track that Dick’s brother owned in NH); but I also had the chance to meet a few Andretti gentlemen.
This season has been a challenge, without doubt, for drivers, track owners/promoters, sponsors, drivers and teams alike. However, NASCAR figured out how to bring racing back as soon as they possibly could and I respect their tenacity and leadership in returning to competition with a plan to keep COVID at bay.
Tomorrow will make history for several reason. Not just because the Indy 500 was postponed to a later date, but also because P1 was claimed by Marco Andretti. His Dad and Grandad will be leading the field to green in a two seater and Michael will be driving (much to Mario’s dismay). They’ll honor the rich history of Indianapolis, but their family, including John, who passed away in January after a serious battle with colon cancer.
I look forward to watching the race. I hope you all do, too. It’s a wonderful reminder of what can be accomplished when you refuse to listen to the critics and persevere. Keep pushing. Keep thinking. Keep creating. Keep looking ahead.
Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines ….