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Packaged to sell on and off track

Fan loyalty to drivers translates into loyalty to sponsors' brands and puts Brandon native Denny Hamlin in a FedEx ad.

By LOUIS HAU
Published February 18, 2006


Sometime during Sunday's Daytona 500, Brandon native and NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin will star in his first TV commercial.

In a cheeky, 30-second spot for FedEx, the 25-year-old winner of this week's Budweiser Shootout will be shown at the wheel of a shuttle cart, driving at breakneck speed through an airport terminal with three terrified passengers in tow.

The words "Every Day Is Racing Day" appears on the screen before it cuts away to Hamlin's No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet screaming through a turn at a racetrack.

"It was definitely fun to see how the whole Hollywood thing works," Hamlin said Friday.

"Hollywood" - or, more specifically, Madison Avenue - has been seeing quite a lot of NASCAR of late. On Sunday, Hamlin will be one of about 20 drivers who will be featured in TV ads for Lowe's, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Sprint Nextel, UPS, Chevrolet, Domino's Pizza and other corporations eager to capitalize on the sports' growing popularity.

The cavalcade of stock-car-drivers-as-pitchmen is a vivid illustration of the personality-centered nature of NASCAR corporate sponsorships.

All professional sports boast big stars with strong fan bases and major endorsement deals.

Still, fan loyalties in team sports such as football and baseball remain rooted most strongly in team allegiances, while golf and tennis draw their biggest followings from those who play the sport, said Woody Thompson, executive vice president of Octagon, a Norwalk, Conn., sports and entertainment consultancy.

From a marketing perspective, NASCAR sells speed. It sells excitement. But most of all, it sells drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, all of whom command a level of intense fan devotion that sponsors find hard to resist.

Fans "don't just think they're great behind the wheel," Thompson said. "They identify with them. Marketers have long understood that it's really about the driver."

This loyalty often extends to the brands associated with the drivers. Earnhardt's instantly identifiable vehicle of choice is a No. 8 Budweiser-emblazoned Chevrolet, Stewart is backed by Home Depot and Gordon is sponsored by Pepsi.

As a result, Thompson said, devoted Earnhardt fans are "probably never going to drink a Miller. I don't believe you'll find many big-time Tony Stewart fans shopping at Lowe's. I don't think you'll find many hard-core Jeff Gordon fans drinking a Coke."

The mental connection that fans make between NASCAR drivers and their sponsors' brands is reinforced by the long-standing tradition of outfitting drivers and their cars in the logos of the companies that back them.

"Motorsports is unique in that you can literally dress up the car and the driver in your brand," said Reid Stewart, vice president for Velocity Sports & Entertainment, a Norwalk, Conn., marketing agency. "It's basically packaging in human form."

For drivers, the personality-based thrust of their sponsors' promotional efforts means far more than appearing in TV ads. It also means participating in a full schedule of promotional events, including numerous in-person appearances to meet fans, sign autographs and hobnob with employees and executives of their leading sponsors.

For instance, Sprint Nextel, the title sponsor of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, usually recruits one or two drivers to make appearances at Sprint Nextel retail stores in each of the markets hosting one of the season's 36 races.

"There's certainly a lot of demand on a driver's time," said Jill Gregory, director of marketing for Sprint Nextel. "We work through scheduling issues."

For Hamlin, who is racing in Sunday's Daytona 500, sponsorship commitments keep him busy during much of his time off the track.

Today he is scheduled to attend a fan meet-and-greet event sponsored by FedEx and will attend a dinner with FedEx executives in the evening.

Even race day isn't free of promotional duties. On Sunday morning, he'll give a brief speech and sign autographs at a hospitality tent organized for employees and customers of Rockwell Automation, a major sponsor.

"It's definitely hard to have a personal life," said Hamlin, who is in his second year of racing in the Nextel Cup Series. "But it's cool that they are that interested. . . . It's a great sport because the fans can get close."

[Last modified February 18, 2006, 02:17:27]


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