Nielsen says making sure such events have a cool factor will pay off.
The 25-year-old joined Soave, owned by Detroit business tycoon Anthony Soave, with a background in social media and the auto industry. His parents have managed dealerships, and Nielsen worked on vehicle launches for Mazda North America as an intern.
When he started at Soave, Nielsen set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and studied what other dealerships were doing. Few promotions seemed social in nature, he said. Photo caption contests and iPad giveaways were more common.
Nielsen aimed to be different. After all, Killilea had charged him with appealing to the wider community, beyond the car geeks who want photos of the latest Porsche or Jaguar.
In September 2011, Nielsen raced something bigger than a train: a Southwest Airlines jet flying from Kansas City to St. Louis. The Race Across Missouri was prompted by a Twitter discussion on whether it was more efficient to drive or fly for a short trip.
Nielsen arranged to race the plane driving a Porsche Panamera. The event trended on Twitter in Kansas City and St. Louis. Local newspapers and TV stations covered the event.
Southwest Airlines, Porsche and Kansas City airport officials tweeted about the race. Twitter impressions totaled more than 300,000, Nielsen said.
For a cost of about $1,000, the event got a lot of people talking about the dealership group, he said.
For Killilea, the attention such events has attracted underscores the importance of having a dedicated social media manager who is engaged with the community.
While there is a salary cost associated with that, Soave's overall marketing budget has shrunk as the group has shifted its resources from traditional media to social media and digital marketing. Newspaper advertising has dropped from about $500,000 annually to $50,000 in just the past few years, Killilea said.
And though results vary, the number of people following events such as the train and plane challenges is more measurable than those paying attention to traditional advertising, he said.
"If we got people talking about us for some reason, and it's not in a negative way, that's a pretty good opportunity," Killilea said.
"It puts our business name and our brands at the top of somebody's mind when they think about buying a car."
Oh, and who won those races? Call it a split: Nielsen beat the train, but lost to the plane.