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Monday, September 03, 2012

WILL COKE's NEW NHRA SPONSORSHIP BE THE REAL THING?

WALLY A LUCK GUY: Courtney Force kisses her Wally trophy after first NHRA Funny Car victory in Seattle. Unfair or not, the TV ratings and media coverage success of NHRA's Countdown probably rides on Courtney being a championship contender all the way to Pomona. (Photo courtesy of Ron Lewis and John Force Racing.)


We're all about the Business of Racing here which meant I was on last week's NHRA media teleconference to make official what I vagued hinted at here several weeks ago: That the underperforming Full Throttle energy drink brand will yield its drag racing series sponsorship to fellow Coca-Cola Co. niche product Mello Yellow. The contract is through 2018.

I found it bizarre this was done in the middle of the week before the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals -- the sport's most prestigious race (postponed to this weekend due to rain) -- but that's NHRA for you. (See below for another example.) P.S. -- I thought it also was a PR/competitor-relations blunder not to include a prize money increase as part of the new deal announcement.

I might well have been the only media person on the teleconference who also was on the call when Coke revealed the NHRA title was shifting from Powerade to Full Throttle. Big Time promises were made on that call, about activating the sponsorship and promoting drag racing, few of which seemed to come to reality. I'll have a lot more to say about this down the road in my CompetitionPlus.com column.

But very pointed and direct B of R questions were the order of the day for me in talking with NHRA President Tom Compton and Coke's Senior Vice President Sports and Entertainment Marketing Partnerships Sharon Byers . The transcript of that Q&A follows. They now are on the record and we'll see if this becomes fact or more fiction. An important bit of news for sponsor-seeking racers was Compton responding to my question if the new contract re-opens the energy drink category for team sponsorship and he said yes. That's the kind of question that needed to be asked because this was fundamentally a business, not a sports, announcement. The chatroomers probably still would not know about this if I hadn't asked.

Q: Sharon, I was actually on the media teleconference call when the announcement was made that Powerade would be transitioning over to the Full Throttle brand, and I'm actually looking on my computer screen at the column I wrote at that time, and the Coca Cola representative on that conference call talked quite a bit about activation in non NHRA markets, and so I'd like to ask you, is this program going to include specific activation beyond the NHRA core audience, and if so, could you give some examples?

A: Yeah, I mean, that's a great question actually. We got that question from our bottling community when we announced it to them last week, so absolutely. There's a ton of power in drag racing overall, whether it's in market or outside of a race market, and our intention is absolutely to take this as broad as we possibly can.

Q: Can you provide some specific examples, for example, when the announcement was made several years ago, there was talk about the retail promotions, NHRA signage on trucks, promotion in non race markets. It's unclear to me how much of that actually happened, but beyond the general statement of it's going to happen, do you have specific commitments to activating beyond the NHRA core audience?

A: This is taking place in 2013, so we're actually in the process of planning this out with Tom's team along with Gary (Darcy, NHRA senior vice president of sales and marketing). But obviously we'll pull in a lot of driver appearances, we'll do some national promotionals, consumer take rates, take large customers, like Dollar General are very interested in taking this nationwide. So we will do the power of Coca Cola's marketing. We're going to take it to the finish line on this one.

Q: When you say driver appearances, do you mean in retail outlets?

A: Yes.

Q: I haven't heard it specifically said other than a reference to age demographic why Coca Cola corporate feels that the NHRA is the best available fit for Mello Yello. Could you be more specific on why the demographic works in your opinion?

A: Yeah. I mean, Mello Yello's consumer base is a youth based consumer group. Really the history that Mello Yello has had in motorsports really helped us tip it over the edge with some other brands that we were looking at between the relationship with Kyle Petty, what we did with Days of Thunder, and we really wanted Mello Yello to get centered and focused on a huge passion point here in America, and we just felt with all of those tenets, the NHRA was a fantastic fit for that brand from a consumer base, from a customer base, and just overall strategically.

Q: For Tom: When changes in the telecom industry resulted in NASCAR switching its series name from Nextel Cup to Sprint Cup, Brian France said a change like that is "not ideal." Next year will represent the third ID change in six years for NHRA. Do you agree with Brian France and have concern about that from a public ID standpoint?

A: Actually I don't. Two parts to that: One is I think we're very fortunate to be enjoying basically 17 years under contract with the Coca Cola Co., and we've already received calls, Tweets, things today from fans and the fans here in Indianapolis that have come up and said what a great move, that's terrific. Our fans know where to find us, and I think with the power of the Coca Cola Company behind us with the Mello Yello brand, it's going to be a good thing for the sport, terrific actually, as opposed to largely being in convenience stores as Full Throttle is. And again, they're still going to be part of this program. Mello Yello is available in grocery stores, big box stores. The distribution is much greater, so the touch points are many.

Q: Could you just speak to the question I asked Sharon about activation beyond the NHRA core fan? Is that something that was a specific negotiating point in putting this deal together?

A: Obviously Mello Yello is a much larger brand. It has tremendous resources. The bottling group as Sharon mentioned was very excited about this announcement because there's an association with motorsports and Mello Yello. The brand planning is still in the works right now, but as always, we're looking to reach beyond the race markets and do things on a national basis which will now be much more able to do with this brand. So I think, yes and yes, we'll be doing much more activation around the races, and there will be opportunities to do things beyond the race markets on a national basis that probably weren't wouldn't be as effective with Full Throttle. And again, Full Throttle we're happy to have still as a partner on a certain level.

Q: Tom, does this change or re-open the energy drink category for individual team sponsorships, or is that still locked up?

A: Yes, it does. Obviously our partner is Coke, but for race teams, race teams are the most important form of sponsorship, and we have such a great partner in Coke. They understand that, and they're willing to let competitors come in now in the energy category and be on cars, that's correct.

Q: Starting in 2013 does that take effect?

A: Yeah, next year, next season.


It can be absolutely maddening to be an NHRA fan or to report on the drag racing industry in a positive way. Latest example: The 2013 schedule includes the Arizona Nationals (quite possibly the last at Firebird Raceway) on Feb. 24, the SAME DAY AS THE DAYTONA 500! And one week before NASCAR will be at Phoenix International Raceway. As I used to be a sanctioning body official, I don't need any lectures from NHRA or anyone else about how complex it can be to schedule races. I see the season will open the previous week at Pomona so, obviously they couldn't go one week earlier, or one week later. BUT . . . This conflict with Daytona GUARANTEES net less media coverage for NHRA and its sponsors. Drag racing simply cannot put an event up against football's Super Bowl or NASCAR's Super Bowl.


FAST LINES: Other BIG B of R news from last weekend -- Office Depot not renewing its co-primary sponsorship deal with Tony Stewart. That leaves a huge budget gap for an organization getting Danica's GoDaddy money next year but still looking for funding for the Ryan Newman car . . . DuPont is selling its foundation automotive paints business. Remember Jeff Gordon's Rainbow Warriors' vivid color design? That helped showcase DuPont's paints. In the long-term, whether other DuPont business units will pick up the sponsorship will be an important question . . . Track problems weren't the only complaints coming out of Baltimore last weekend. Based on the E-mails I received, media operations weren't the best, either. Among the issues related to me -- A much longer walk to the media center to accommodate an "off-limits" sponsor area; conflicting news conferences at different locations; PR/promotions people "suggesting" questions to be asked at a sponsor news briefing; and, yes, food.


As I have noted here before, I rarely watch SportsCenter any more. For years it was a daily appointment for me, but in the current ESPN philosophy, it has too many gimmicks, too much content based not on news but on programming, and has too many anchors and reporters there for reasons other than journalistic (or even broadcasting) talent. Here's a good read regarding the lack of legitimate news judgment:
http://www.thewrap.com/tv/blog-post/espn-journalistic-standards-emperor-no-longer-wears-clothes-53481?page=0,0

Meanwhile, one of the emptiest of the ESPN Empty Suits, Jonathan Coachman, was used on NASCAR Now. I guess that was his reward for saying Stewart's helmet throw at Bristol "was one of the best things I've seen in a long time." After his NASCAR gig, Coachman then went on ESPN Radio to brag about it and called NASCAR his "second home." Real NASCAR fans should feel insulted, on a number of levels. For one thing, Coachman's "first home" is professional wrestling.

[ more next Monday . . . ]