NASCAR's digital evolution on track

NASCAR leads the way in the transition to digital for domestic US motorsports and the marketing ecospheres and sponsors that rely on them.

Oliver Marks / ZDNet


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The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), the American motor racing sanctioning and operating company best known for stock-car racing, in many people's minds equals high-speed banked oval track racing, southern states culture, and sports TV coverage.

Today, NASCAR, like so many other business entities and their product offerings, is grappling with differing perceptions of its evolutionary efforts to become digital in a world still mostly measured with business metrics from the last century.

American stock car racing has its roots in moonshine running (smuggling illegal alcohol in extremely fast sleeper sedans to outrun the law). These vehicles were subsequently also used for and greatly influenced motor racing events on southern beach and road tracks. The broader US has a great tradition of stadium racing, originally on banked wooden board tracks, which were wildly popular in the 20s and 30s and which greatly influenced the origins of the 'brickyard,' Indianapolis's world famous banked track. These two traditions merged into stock car racing, which NASCAR was formed to organize and run.

Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Image: Sean Gardner, Getty Images)

NASCAR's core product is creating, evolving, and enforcing the race series rules that the teams and drivers have to abide by, and promoting the race packages. Today, the nurture, enjoyment, and digital sentiment analysis is essential to the health of the sport, and business has never been more important, particularly to attract team sponsors in an era when motor sports has never been more expensive or complex.

The modern NASCAR media era first ignited when, as a result of a major US east coast snow storm causing other live events to be cancelled, the entire February 1979 Florida Daytona 500 race was televised live beginning to end on CBS, a first for a 500-mile race in the US. "In-car" camera views were introduced to US TV viewers, and there was a post race fist fight between the two leading drivers after a last lap collision. NASCAR quickly grew a major new armchair audience and opportunity, becoming a very popular branding opportunity for race car sponsors hungry for TV eyeballs across multiple high ratings broadcasts.

NASCAR first incorporated as a business in 1921, and the sport has gone through huge changes before and since that 1979 TV watershed media event that brought stock cars to regular television programming worldwide. I visited NASCAR's Charlotte headquarters on its Indianapolis Brickyard 400 regular season-ending race last month to see a race day live from the perspective of the organization, view the modern digital audience interactions, and to experience the highly sophisticated technical and broadcast operations, which I will go into details of in my next post.

Multi screen digital experience enabled by a sophisticated back end

The dedicated fan base that rapidly flowered with live broadcast TV created a broader past generation of diehard fans, but today, along with many other large stadium entertainment spectacles this decade, capturing new fans and remaining relevant in our short attention span digital era is essential for continued relevance and evolution. Like many other huge stadium sports events today, the reality is that digital coverage is in many ways better than traveling to be on site, with a visual, sound, and data experience that provides deep context and information over the grandstand seat single view race perspective (although many race fans today do both).

NASCAR's storied past is highly valuable in an online era that craves authenticity and substance, but the challenges of attracting new enthusiasts in a world of multiple screen consumption requires NASCAR to increasingly focus primarily on the digital experience alongside broadcast and streamed TV -- the mediums through which the vast majority of fans experience races.

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While event live attendance is currently shrinking, digital participation has increased as the sport evolved from a sit back and watch live experience to far more interactive events. The new digital recipe is live streamed broadcast TV coverage, video snippets, and 360-degree video driver views on social networks and the NASCAR website, rich data feeds of information and stats for the more sophisticated enthusiasts, a big focus on developing and promoting driver personalities, and of course, strong social network interactions.

The new generation of drivers have often spent countless hours sim racing online to hone their skills, with iRacing (which was based on the old Papyrus NASCAR racing PC game) being a highly accurate training simulation of cars and the actual tracks races are held on. Given the cost of modern race cars, this practice time is invaluable and a far cry from lap time experience in previous eras of the relatively simple previous generation stock cars.

While hall of fame NASCAR drivers have often had historically very colorful stories associated with them, our modern digital world requires a sophisticated and pervasive online network presence. At a live race, it's common to see the drivers walk past you in the pits and sometimes stop and chat with fans depending on stress levels. Online, they are similarly working hard to relate to fans through YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and any other emerging platform.

A Charlotte NASCAR race event production suite. (Image: Oliver Marks/ZDNet)

Last weekend marked two evolutionary events: The playoff race locations didn't have any road courses (multi left and right turn tracks) scheduled, so the Charlotte oval track infield was converted to a seventeen turn Roval to test drivers skills in the style of the Sonoma and Watkins Glen race tracks as part of the end of season points race. Also this weekend, up and coming 17-year-old driver Hailie Deegan won a K&N filters race, the first woman to win a NASCAR race since 1989. Equally, or maybe even more importantly, Hailie has a huge, authentic-feeling social media presence onlinepresence online, essential in the modern era for fan engagement, connecting with core audiences today and sponsor visibility.

Tied into this event evolution and staying on trend with where the audience is today and tomorrow, NASCAR has close relationships with broadcast TV and also have its own major television and production facility in Charlotte, including vast archives of past races, all of which are being digitized with the original tape and film then sent off for safe keeping in secure former salt mines.

I will get into the details of this and how multiple levels of technical race day events are run in a future post. To whet your appetite for that, NASCAR has one of the largest broadcast production facilities on the east coast and is in line for technical Emmy awards, highly sophisticated track-side sensors, and GPS real time racer data capture during races, and a fleet of trucks that transport over 20 miles of fiber for installation and breakdown at all grand national race track events.

Creating and staying on trend and relevant for the future

All this technical sophistication is irrelevant if it does not resonate with the audience, the lifeblood of the sport, and like other sports, there are huge modern challenges with measuring where that audience is and where and how they are engaging and focusing.

TV remains the core distribution medium, with streaming now evolving how races are consumed and where measurement metrics continue to work reasonably well along historical lines to define audience engagement.

The rest of digital remains an evolutionary challenge, as conservative media and marketing businesses attempt to analyse new world habits and formats using old fashioned logic -- a widespread problem shared across many different business verticals today.

NASCAR is arguably leading the way with its digital evolution in domestic US motorsports and the media ecospheres and sponsors that rely on them.

In my next post, I will discuss some of the details of NASCAR's technical operations as the season reaches its climax.

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