Pressing the flesh
Fan festival gives drivers and sponsors chance to meet fans
Updated: Friday August 03, 2001 9:57 PM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- Mark Martin turns indignant at the thought of being a car salesman, but there's little doubt Martin and the NASCAR boys help move cars off the showroom floor.
Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, Dodge -- take your pick.
It was something called Fan Appreciation Day that had Martin and 15 other Ford drivers on the floor of the RCA Dome -- home turf of Peyton Manning and the hometown Colts -- fielding questions Thursday night from race fans and signing autographs.
Race show cars were spread around the floor with the latest model of Ford cars and trucks, and the carnival atmosphere offered face painting and games for young kids.
Ford marketing-types sold it as a trackside experience without the race, and with the feature of seeing your favorite driver up close.
"It's fans coming to see their heroes," offered Martin, after finishing an autograph session. "I think the Ford thing is subliminal. Nobody is rubbing Ford in their face. Ford is doing the fans a favor, fans of myself, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton.
"Ford is saying, 'Hey, here are your guys. Here is your chance to get up next to them, to ask them questions. Get an autograph. Get a handshake, a picture.'
"The reason they're here is they're fans of those drivers. The drivers happen to drive Fords. They love those drivers. They're probably going to buy Fords. You don't have to hit them between the eyes.
"A Dale Jarrett fan that comes here to see him and take his picture, when it comes time to buy an automobile is probably not going to buy a [Chevrolet] Monte Carlo. It is that simple."
NASCAR fans are loyal to a fault, and that's why everyone from Viagra (Martin's new sponsor) to the makers of Tide laundry detergent pay heavily to be associated with the sport. Like Martin says, fans are prone to buy from the commercial folks backing the sport and, in particular, the drivers they identify with.
Someone like Ford doesn't pump upwards of $250,000 into Fan Appreciation Day unless they know it'll sell cars. And it definitely does.
Last year, the company staged six fanfests leading up to Winston Cup races.
To get a free ticket, fans had to first visit a local Ford dealership. The normal rate of return on a promotional program is one of two percent. Here, Ford found 12.2 percent later became active consumers, buying or leasing.
"That is a huge number," said Sam Scott, Ford racing's marketing manager. "Dealers don't care if I have giraffes that do summersaults. If it brings people in to buy cars, that's what they want."
Dealer participation nationwide in the fan event was 28 percent four years ago and is now approaching 85 percent. At the same time, sales numbers have jumped from 6 to 12 percent.
A crowd between 8,000 and 10,000 made their way to the RCA Dome.
And these were clearly the people Ford felt comfortable entertaining, even if there wasn't a salesman on the floor.
"The neat thing about the racing [crowd] is its qualified traffic, somebody that is going to buy," Scott said. "We have been able to define who this particular audience is. First of all, they are people loyal to the domestic manufacturers. They're loyal to all the sponsors that support racing, and we have become one of those people in their eyes.
"They like to trade for cars and trucks more frequently than anybody else. They're willing to spend a higher percentage of their income to do that. "That is our qualified customers. It just fits about everything I can think of."
Even the local NFL franchise doesn't have the same pull as a Winston Cup driver. Then again, star running back Edgerrin James isn't a walking billboard, playing Sundays with commercial logos covering almost every inch of his uniform.
And is he a Ford or Chevy guy? Nobody can tell.
"The fans go with the drivers," Martin said. "I changed sponsors this year and I still have the same fans. They just bought new shirts, hats. It's just huge marketing power in this thing."