The Opening of a Closed Mind: How I Discovered the Nascar Marketing Channel
By: Phil Johnson
It started as a really stupid question. I asked Robin Johnson, the exec VP of business development at Roush Fenway Racing of North Carolina, exactly what kind of cars they race at the Daytona 500. I was at the Business Marketing Association national conference in Chicago last week. At the end of the first day, they had a "networking cruise" on Lake Michigan, and I found myself standing alone without any business cards on the deck of a boat packed with a couple of hundred marketers. I happened to strike up a conversation with Robin, who proceeded to tell me a little bit about his company. That began my introduction into the world of Nascar.
We were quickly descending into that black hole of polite, meaningless business conversation that people use to fill up air space when they have nothing in common. In a million years, I couldn't imagine Nascar being part of my business or personal life. Rather than fake it, I said to Robin, "I don't know a damn thing about Nascar. I've never been to a race, or even watched one on TV. Why do they even call it a sport?"
That's when the conversation got liftoff. First, Robin told me that he'd never met a business that he couldn't help make money with a Nascar sponsorship. (Did I mention that Robin was a sales person?) Then he said, I've got someone I want you to meet, and he called over a good-looking kid named Trevor Bayne, who, this past February, a day after his 20th birthday, was the youngest driver to ever win the Daytona 500. After Robin relayed my ignorance about Nascar and racing in general, Trevor proceeded to school me in some of the more interesting details of his occupation, such as what it feels like to hold on to a steering wheel at 200 miles per hour. He talked me through his weekly schedule and the life of a driver. And as for being a sport, he said his heart rate can get up to 185 for a three-hour stretch. I doubt that my heart rate ever broke 100 on the golf course.
Trevor had that rare gift to take you inside his world and share his passion. No question was too stupid, and he had all the patience in the world. When he finally walked away 30 minutes later, I turned to Robin and asked whether this kid was for real. Is anybody really that polite and charming? He told me that's how they raise their kids down south.
Robin and I got in an extended conversation about Nascar demographics, the value of putting a logo on the side of a car, and how to measure the results from a sponsorship — all the boring stuff you'd expect to talk about at a marketing conference.
I had flown off to Chicago anticipating to hear about the next cool thing. I heard some wonderful speakers talk about analytics, emerging technologies and global marketing strategies. They even had as a keynote speaker the indefatigable Seth Godin, who can deliver more wisdom in an hour than I'll remember in a lifetime. What really stayed with me though was the time I spent with Robin Johnson and Trevor Bayne. With their enthusiasm and fearlessness, they reminded me of a couple of important points about life, business and marketing.
When you get the chance to speak to someone from a different walk of life than your own, don't waste your time on small talk.
You can spend your time chasing innovations and trying to stay on the cutting edge of your profession, but don't forget that creativity lives in unlikely places, in this case on the side of a race car.
My job is to find opportunities for our clients. While Nascar may be an unlikely venue for most of them, I'm going to keep an open mind. It's not all about business either. Before the summer is over, I plan to go watch Trevor race, for no good reason other than to satisfy my curiosity and discover something new.