Changing Times Signal More NASCAR Profits

By Fisher, Eric | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 8, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Changing Times Signal More NASCAR Profits

Fisher, Eric, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

For years NASCAR years was a constant in terms of its merchandising and fan image: very rural, Southern, male, middle to lower-middle class. When major pro sports started to become saddled with the effects of stratospheric salaries, drugs, point-shaving and so forth 25 years ago, NASCAR was the old reliable on the periphery of the American sporting conscience.

Sure, stock car races didn't get much TV time, newspapers didn't care and drivers didn't earn much. But you could actually talk to them, because in a lot of ways they were just like you.

In just a few years, of course, everything has changed. NASCAR's image is much more polished and mainstream. The sport now easily outdraws established team sports such as baseball and football in attendance. Network TV ratings are up 19 percent since 1993 and higher than those of every major sports league except the NFL. Super driver Jeff Gordon is treated like a rock star by his fans and is now fully embraced by Madison Avenue. Thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals with Pepsi and a host of other Fortune 500 companies, Gordon can be seen just about everywhere.

But another, arguably much more significant change, is redefining NASCAR yet again: its rapidly rising demographic. Today's fan is much younger, wealthier, much more educated, and surprisingly, more urban. The percentage of NASCAR's fan base with a college education has increased 18 percent since 1993, and the percentage of fans with at least $100,000 in annual household income has surged 53 percent.

That massive shift has generated big changes in how stock car racing is merchandised. T-shirts, hats and die-cast model cars are no longer sufficient to fuel NASCAR's $1.1 billion merchandising business. Today's hot-selling products include embroidered denim shirts, premium brushed leather jackets and - just in time for this weekend - Brickyard 400 wine at $45 for each limited edition, hand-etched bottle.

Brickyard 400 wine? Hand-etched bottle? What in the name of Richard Petty, good ol' boys, and Winston cigarettes is going on? Has NASCAR gentrified itself to the point where it has lost touch with its accessible-to-the-masses roots? Does anyone realize that same $45 will buy an entire keg of Busch, NASCAR's official beer?

NASCAR, in its unyielding quest to eclipse the NFL as America's undisputed No. 1 spectator sport, has realized that to be truly mainstream, it must appeal to all key demographics. It has even made inroads with blacks, a group it has long ignored.

Beyond the high-end merchandise, NASCAR is courting suburban America with air-conditioned seats at tracks and gourmet food. Likely next on the horizon are a lucrative unified network TV contract similar to what the NFL has and a new non-tobacco series sponsor to replace Winston.

"Our fan is changing. There is definitely a demand for higher-end product, and that's simply a reflection of the needs of the marketplace," insists Liz Schlosser, NASCAR's managing director of licensing.

Thoroughbred Vintners, an Indiana company behind Brickyard 400 wine - a cabernet sauvignon, by the way - also produces similar wines and liquors for the Kentucky Derby and Indy 500. Now in the works is another blend for the Daytona 500, with the company also pursuing product licenses from the PGA, Major League Baseball and the NBA.

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