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NASCAR’s marketing campaign attempts to strike delicate balance between pushing established veterans and rising stars

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Dealing with the retirement of several popular veterans, NASCAR has shifted its brand campaign to give young drivers a turn in the media spotlight.

Charlotte Motor Speedway Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600
Brad Keselowski (left), Joey Logano (middle) and Channing Tatum (right) during pre-race festivities for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Ryan Blaney’s IMDB page is growing robust. Within the span of a year, the driver who is considered one of NASCAR’s rising stars has voiced a character in a Hollywood blockbuster, had a cameo in a film helmed by an Academy Award-winning director, and appeared on an NBC television show.

That Blaney has become a semi-regular on the big and small screen is no coincidence. It’s actually by design, a coordinated effort by NASCAR to promote its drivers in ventures outside of racing with the hope it will increase interest among those who don’t consider themselves ardent NASCAR fans.

And that Blaney has become one of NASCAR’s go-to drivers when producers are looking to fill roles is also not a coincidence. The 24-year-old relishes the opportunity to branch out and is known to quickly say yes when approached. Regardless if it’s as a voice in Cars 3, a delivery guy in Logan’s Lucky, or a special agent with a unique set of skills in Taken.

“I think it is good for the sport and myself,” Blaney said. “I just think it is really important to have not only young drivers but all NASCAR drivers pushing to get to new demographics of the world to get interested in our sport.

“Everybody should be more open to helping the sport out because that is how it is going to survive. I am trying to do the best I can at it and a lot of other drivers are helping too, just trying to get more and more every day.”

NASCAR welcomes Blaney’s attitude as it attempts to stem waning television ratings and stagnant attendance while at the same time dealing with the recent departures of superstars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick, and Tony Stewart, all of whom have stepped away since the 2015 season concluded.

The loss of these megawatt personalities who were among the most popular has created a cavernous void NASCAR is struggling to fill. Although the sport is flush with young talent, it continues to lack that A-list superstar who transcends into popular culture. Thus the recent emphasis to spotlight Blaney, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez, and Darrell Wallace Jr., be it in television shows, movies, or in commercials for the sport itself.

NASCAR’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, especially among some veteran drivers who are still very relevant and yet feel as if they’re ignored. Kyle Busch, the 2015 Cup Series champion, has been most vocal about what he believes is an overemphasis on a younger group of drivers whose collective accomplishments don’t come anywhere close to matching his stellar résumé.

”All you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver,” Busch said. “I think it’s stupid. I don’t know, I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”

Blaney and Wallace take exception to Busch’s assertion, pointing out the reason they’ve been promoted so heavily is because of their willingness to go above and beyond. This is in contrast to Busch, 32, who many within the industry contend is not always as enthusiastic about such opportunities. And that propensity to say no hasn’t gone unnoticed — not by his peers nor by NASCAR’s marketing arm tasked with cultivating ways to promote the sport beyond traditional media avenues focused solely on what happens on the track.

“What we really try to do is match the opportunity to the right driver personality-wise first,” Gregory said. “So there are certain things that make sense for a Ryan Blaney that might not make sense for another driver so we’ll go there first. But at the end of the day, we also want to promote the sport so if those veterans aren’t able, then we’ll consider our younger guys and give them a shot.”

NASCAR’s approach to marketing has evolved since 2011, when it received a wakeup call in the form of relatively unknown Trevor Bayne pulling off an upset and winning the Daytona 500. The then-20-year-old was making just his second Cup Series start and because NASCAR’s marketing at the time was focused not on the drivers, but the competition on the track.

Suddenly, NASCAR found itself in a difficult position to market Bayne effectively. Hence forth its approach to promoting its drivers — both young and veterans alike — changed from what Busch encountered when he entered the Cup Series in 2005.

“Part of what we did back then was identify that building up drivers needed to be a key part of our strategy,” Gregory said. “We at that time hadn’t done much of that, we kinda let the on track storylines take care of themselves. And we still do that, on-track competition is the most important thing — how a driver does on the track — but we invested time and resources to help our young drivers and established stars build their brands.

“What you’re seeing this year is the crop of drivers we invested in five or six years ago are now making it to our top level,” Gregory added.

NASCAR has instituted several initiatives designed to promote young drivers well before they reach the Cup Series, so by the time they arrive at that level they’re proven commodities. Nowadays 20-year-old Byron and 24-year-old Wallace, who will vie for Rookie of the Year honors this season, are as known as some of the veterans they’ll be racing against on a weekly basis.

Part of NASCAR’s revised strategy has seen it partner with a Hollywood agency and come up with a formal brand development program that entailed putting about 15 drivers interested in increasing their exposure — this did not include drivers such as Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, or Patrick, whose brands were already well established — through a thorough six-hour interview process. This allows NASCAR’s marketing office to pinpoint four key things the person is most interested, what are referred to as “swim lanes” by those involved in the process, then when potential opportunities arise it’s easier to pair with the ideal candidate. While some producers naturally gravitate toward bigger names like Earnhardt or Johnson, they aren’t necessarily suited for every chance that comes down the pipe.

When a Taken executive producer was looking for someone to play a special agent with an expertise in driving, it was appropriate he would seek a professional racer for the role. The person chosen would both lend some credibility and their star power to the show.

After connecting with NASCAR’s entertainment division, that executive producer provided the criteria he was seeking, which NASCAR could readily fulfill because of its exhaustive vetting process. In short order the executive producer was given a list of 10 drivers who best fit and ultimately Blaney was selected because he checked the most boxes.

“I can tell you personally that (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff so that is why they don’t ask him to do a lot of stuff,” Blaney said.

Nor is the marketing exclusive to television and movie roles or starring in national advertisements. Wallace will be the subject of an eight-part docu-series tracking his debut in the Daytona 500 that will air on Facebook Watch.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Busch and other veterans of his generation are being overlooked. He was also cast in Logan’s Lucky, has been the focus of several previous NASCAR produced advertising campaigns, and is one of 17 Cup Series drivers — a combination of rising stars and established veterans — featured in NASCAR’s new brand campaign for 2018. These myriad opportunities seemingly undermine Busch’s point about not getting the fair end of the promotional stick.

”That’s like the child that’s whining, somebody who’s whining for some attention,” 18-year veteran Kevin Harvick said of Busch’s objections. “I can’t complain about that because of the fact that our sponsors have been so involved with the things that we do. NASCAR has been very open to the things that they’re doing and involving us in it.

”I can’t back that up, to be honest with you. You have to have a push for the younger-generation guys as well in order to help introduce them to the fans. In the end, that only works if they have success on the racetrack.”

Therein lays the rub. Although Blaney, Byron, Elliott, Larson, Suarez, and Wallace are personable and shown potential to achieve success at the top level, thus far they’ve only have a combined six Cup Series victories amongst themselves. Eventually there needs to be substance to justify the hype if any or all are to come close to filling the sizable shoes of the superstars they’re being counted on to replace.

And yet, to ensure it can withstand the loss of several beloved veterans, that commitment to promoting the next generation of stars must be made.

“It’s OK,” Gregory said. “I have no doubt that Chase is going to win a lot of races, but even if it doesn’t happen exactly that way or as quickly as possible, we know he’s going to be a star in the sport for a long time so we’re happy to make that investment now.”