Racing league steers unusual pacts in fan outreach

“Undercover Boss” may not be the first TV show you’d associate NASCAR with, but that’s just what the racing league is looking for as it seeks out ways to promote the brand to potential new fans.

The episode of the CBS reality show, which airs Sunday, revolves around Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer, as he trains with a pit crew, works a concession stand and helps a maintenance crew paint the Daytona Speedway’s start and finish lines.

Bosses at Choice Hotels, Chiquita, DirecTV, Frontier Airlines, Great Wolf Resorts, the Chicago Cubs and Lucky Strike Lanes also appear in the second season.

But for NASCAR, the show is the latest in a series of unusual integrations that it has recently embraced, which include the BET reality series “Changing Lanes,” the Ludacris-narrated skein that gives minorities and women the chance to compete for a spot on a NASCAR race team.

To show a different side of the sport beyond just race coverage and driver appearances, it has also paired up with musicians like the Zac Brown Band, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Matchbox 20 and Lenny Kravitz. There are placements within such upcoming pics as Disney’s “Cars 2″ and Paramount’s third “Transformers,” while NASCAR co-promoted this summer’s “A-Team” for Fox and Sony’s “Grown Ups,” among others. It essentially wants to rev up its presence within pop culture, as long as the placements don’t make the sport seem foolish — opportunities that NASCAR’s Los Angeles-based entertainment office has been tasked with finding.

“We want to be in places where folks consider us not to be,” Phelps told Daily Variety. “By being mainstream, we surprise people. We believe entertainment is a great way for us to reach a new fan or reinforce an existing fan’s interest in the sport. The key for us is to live where these people live. Whether it’s movies, music or television shows, we have to reach people where they are.”

Although NASCAR is the second most-watched sport in the U.S., behind football, it still struggles with a stigma over its purported downscale demos. Its weekly races are watched by roughly 7 million TV viewers and attended by more than 100,000.

Ratings have also been down, and attendance has fluctuated, depending on the track, due largely to the recession. In addition, races have had to compete against NFL games, the Winter Olympics (namely the gold medal hockey game) and the World Cup.
NASCAR’s “Undercover Boss” episode airs one week before NASCAR’s annual Talladega Super Speedway race on Halloween — which, of course, was featured in the title of Sony’s Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

“I had some trepidation before filming the episode, but I knew it would be great for the brand and the sport in general,” Phelps said of his appearance on “Undercover Boss.” “It’s not a gotcha show, which gave me some comfort. Having this be a broad-based look at the sport and some of the action on the track, gives a sense of how things work.”

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