Morgantown, W.Va., population 26,919, lies an hour south of Pittsburgh and four and a half hours from the nearest NASCAR stock-car racetrack. The year after dealer Gil Johnson took over at Campus Ford of Morgantown, he discovered the former coal-mining community was a hotbed for race fans.
'I saw NASCAR promotions everywhere: at Sears, at the restaurant and the gas station,' says Johnson, recalling a trip to the mall with his daughter last spring. 'Motorsports was huge, and I knew I needed to be a part of it.'
Three months later, Johnson rounded up some sponsors and plunked down $20,000 to have Ford's leading NASCAR driver, Dale Jarrett, visit his dealership. To Johnson's amazement, 6,000 race fans flocked to his dealership's first major motorsports promotion.
More than 2,200 miles away, Lakewood, Colo., Chevrolet dealer Richard Fleischman says he does not understand motorsports. Why would people sit in bleachers in 100-degree temperatures to hear ear-deafening race engines roar down the track at the Brickyard? His customers much prefer watching the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos from their living rooms or hitting the snowy slopes of Vail on weekends.
'The last time we did a motorsports promotion was two years ago; the people were after the free hats,' says Fleischman. 'We had Dale Earnhardt's car in here, too. They were extremely interested in viewing his car, but we weren't able to develop any business out of it.'
Johnson and Fleischman are typical of the state of motorsports marketing on the retail level. Manufacturers spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to turn wins into sales, but interest by dealers is hit-or-miss. Some dealers integrate motorsports effectively into their marketing plans, while others see little promotional value in racing.
That frustrates companies such as Chevrolet, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. They see nonparticipation by dealers as missed opportunities. Automakers are bullish on motorsports because race fans' demographics make them ideal prospects and such fans exhibit exceptional brand awareness and loyalty. Plus, even though most people realize there are differences between street cars and race cars, there is still a natural tie-in with the products on the showroom floor.
Lack of dealer involvement in motorsports is a problem right now, says Sam Scott, Ford Division motorsports marketing manager.
'I just talked to a dealer in Chicago,' a city with no major race venues, Scott says. 'The dealer says he doesn't need to be involved in racing because he can't take advantage of our involvement. (But) it doesn't matter if it's 10 miles away or 100, you're supporting an event, and your customers appreciate it.'
New Chevrolet Race Shop Manager Gary Claudio faces the same challenge. He says only about half of Chevrolet dealers are involved in any given local race the division sponsors.
'You've got good dealers and bad dealers' in terms of marketing motorsports, says Claudio.
'Certainly we'd like a coordinated effort, (so we can) speak with one voice and leverage the Chevrolet national involvement. It's fractured, but that's something we'll have to overcome.'
Toyota has been involved in motorsports in the United States only since 1983. It started racing in CART, the premier U.S. open wheel series, in 1996.
Les Unger, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. national motorsports manager, says Toyota dealers are still learning how to leverage involvement on a local level.
'It's an education process that you have to keep at,' says Unger. 'For the last eight to 10 years, they are starting to take an interest on their own. We've found that if they are near a big racing venue, yes, they take an interest. If they are not near a racing venue, unless they are really gung-ho, they are not going to take the interest.'
Dealers not involved in race promotions maintain that they need to address the needs and interests of their customers. Promotions of any type involve advertising dollars and personnel time.
Mitch Rhodes, sales manager of Dusty Rhodes Ford in Kilgore, Texas, says, 'There aren't many people into racing cars around here except two of my mechanics who like drag racing on a little old local track. Football, baseball and rodeo are definitely ahead of motorsports.' Rhodes says the store does not use motorsports promotion material.
But that lack of interest may be changing. Kilgore is about two hours east of Dallas, which hosted its second annual NASCAR Winston Cup event last month. Winston Cup is America's most popular series.
Too many choices?
To make race promotions easier and more attractive, three of the major manufacturers are changing their race marketing programs to make it easier and more attractive for dealers to participate.
Mercedes-Benz already has a 'how-to' marketing manual for dealers interested in promoting motorsports. Steve Potter, supervisor of sports marketing, says Mercedes is tracking customers and prospects who may be motorsports fans through market research tools. Those customers will be invited to Mercedes hospitality areas at local races throughout the country as part of the brand's relationship-marketing effort.
Chevrolet plans to offer what Claudio calls a 'Sale in a Box' to all of its dealers next year. The box contains promotional materials (banners, posters) and step-by-step instructions for putting on motorsports promotions within the dealership. Claudio hopes the kit will help dealers by making motorsports promotions easier and more effective.
Ford is changing the scope of motorsports promotions from regional to national this fall. Scott says the idea is to have a promotional template that can run any time of the year, not just around certain races. Scott says the cost to the dealer is expected to be less than current regional programs and should attract more dealers because of the premium prizes.
Automaker participation in racing is expected to continue to increase despite higher costs. For example, Chevrolet plans to re-enter international road racing. And Dodge continues to consider NASCAR Winston Cup.
'I get about two to three calls from dealers a week (about Dodge and Winston Cup); as the audience grows, the interest in our dealers grows,' says Ken Lawrence, Dodge Div-ision dealer advertising manager.
Back in Morgan-town, Gil Johnson is celebrating the dealership's first year in the black in nine years. Race fans are stopping him on the street for a word of thanks. And Johnson knows fans will be back for more. h
Laura Clark Geist is a free-lance reporter based in Birmingham, Mich.