‘It’s a special opportunity for the brand’: How Garage 56 is leading Nascar’s international drive

John Doonan and Michael Lock of Garage 56, the venture behind Nascar’s first visit to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 47 years, talk to the BlackBook about why the traditional American favourite is having to take a different approach to reach new audiences both at home and further afield.

With the creation of Drive to Survive, Formula One’s rise in popularity has been exponential. While more eyes on the world of motorsport can only be a positive, series around the world are now having to compete for their share of the increased attention.

Nascar has long been considered the most popular form of motorsport in the US, but recent trends will be of concern to the stock car racing series. It is certainly still pulling in the numbers, averaging 3.7 million viewers per race on Fox across its first 16 events this season. That represents a six per cent year-over-year (YoY) increase, while African American and Hispanic audiences are at their highest levels since the current TV deal was signed in 2015. The network has also seen increases in female viewership.

Taking a wider view, though, highlights a problem. The series’ flagship event, the Daytona 500, averaged 8.87 million viewers this year. On the surface, an increase over the past two instalments of the race seems encouraging, but both of the previous editions suffered from delays due to adverse weather conditions. The last race to run without delay – in 2019 – averaged 9.17 million viewers.

Since 1974, average viewership for the ‘Great American Race’ has dropped below ten million seven times. Five of those instances have been in the last five years, with the most recent edition delivering record-low viewership for a non-delayed Daytona 500.

Doing things differently

A new approach to reach wider audiences is therefore required, something that Nascar’s John Doonan and Michael Lock are all too aware of. Both are part of the Garage 56 project, which in 2023 will see Nascar return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans 47 years after it last competed in the endurance race. The timing could not be more apt, with Le Mans celebrating its centenary and Nascar reaching its 75th anniversary next year.

“Garage 56 is an opportunity to put Nascar back on the international stage,” says Doonan, president of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) and programme manager for Garage 56. “It’s a really special opportunity for the Nascar brand.”

The initiative will give Nascar the opportunity to showcase its next generation car outside of the US. Introduced for this season, the next gen car is “more advanced than anything Nascar has overseen”, according to Doonan, while also allowing all teams to save on their budgets.

The 1976 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans saw Nascar send two entries: a Dodge Charger (pictured) and a Ford Torino

In previous seasons, Nascar teams would churn through three dozen cars as they progressed through the year, but are now limited to a maximum of seven chassis. The move has allowed smaller outfits to compete at the front, most notably Trackhouse Racing, a new team for this season who have achieved three wins already.

Going out to Le Mans, though, is about more than simply showing off new technology to a new audience. Crucially, recent viewing figures in the US have seen Formula One start to outperform Nascar in the 18 to 49 demographic, a key audience for the future of any sport. A next generation car is all well and good, but Nascar also has to start shifting focus to its next generation of fans.

The stock car racing series recently made the unusual move of sponsoring the collegiate athletics department of the University of Alabama, including branded segments on videoboards during the university’s football and basketball games. Tapping the college sports market in a region known for its affinity to Nascar is a step in the right direction for the series in its efforts to attract a younger following.

Indeed, it is unusual moves like this that epitomise the direction the series now wants to take.

“[Nascar president] Steve Phelps has said Nascar is going to continue to do things differently,” Doonan explains. “I think the LA Coliseum event was quite unique, 70 per cent of the people that attended had never been to an auto race before, and certainly never a Nascar race. So I think it’s opened up the eyes of a new fanbase.

“[In future, there will be] more road courses, [there’s a] street circuit in downtown Chicago [starting next season]. Now, as a sport, we’re all thinking in a different manner than we have for years. Bringing this car to Le Mans does that in the European market.”

‘Motorsport is on an upward trend’

As Doonan mentions, Nascar staged an event in February at the LA Memorial Coliseum, the former home of the National Football League’s (NFL) Los Angeles Rams. It was a first-of-its-kind race by virtue of being held inside a football stadium, which presents an opportunity for Nascar to bring its events to city centres, much like in the way Formula One does. It has already been confirmed that the race will be returning for 2023.

At the same time, Nascar will also be experimenting with racing in city centres themselves, with a street circuit set to join the calendar for the first time in the series’ history. Hosted in Chicago, the Cup Series event will take place on Independence Day weekend next year. When the race was announced, Ben Kennedy, senior vice president of racing development and strategy for Nascar, said adding a street course to the calendar ensured the series would have “the most diverse motorsports schedule that exists out there today”.

We all have an opportunity as a collective in the industry to take advantage of interest among either our current audience, or a completely new audience.

– John Doonan, President, International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) & Programme Manager, Garage 56

It's hard not to see all these changes through the lens of Formula One and how its rising stock is beginning to shift the goalposts for other motorsport series. Doonan, however, believes that Formula One’s success is not something that will take away from Nascar, but rather carry the stock car racing series with it.

“It would be silly for any of us in the industry to not take notice of what Formula One has done with the ability for people to take in content – not just the races – anywhere in the world,” he says. “I think understanding that motorsport as a whole is on an upward trend, we’re seeing massive commitment among the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to race in the top category, which we’re thrilled about.

“We all have an opportunity as a collective in the industry to take advantage of interest among either our current audience, or a completely new audience.”

This is the crux of why Nascar is taking international steps towards Le Mans. Engaging with new audiences and keeping up with evolving viewing habits is crucial for a motorsport series that wants to thrive. To that end, the stock car racing series has just started its very own version of Drive to Survive. ‘Race for the Championship’ is documenting the 2022 season, but the show will air before Nascar has completed its season.

Nascar will showcase its next gen car to an international audience when it races at Le Mans

Matt Summers, managing director of entertainment marketing at Nascar, told the Charlotte Observer that Nascar wants its docuseries to add to the narrative of the season itself, driving excitement before its grand finale.

“The last episode will air right before our championship race, covering the race that had happened four days before on Sunday, and it’ll be a literal cliff-hanger that sets up the championship race on NBC,” he said.

Standing up to consumer demands

Lock, who is chief executive of AMA Pro Racing and international marketing and communications lead for Garage 56, believes changing consumer demands can be traced back to two main reasons. The fragmentation of broadcast over the last decade and the proliferation of new content have made fans want more storytelling or, more specifically, greater insight into what’s happening behind the story.

For Nascar, any efforts by Formula One to accelerate its audience growth will create a rising tide for all of motorsport. Moving forwards, the emphasis has to be placed on finding a balance between the integrity of motorsport and the value of entertainment that it provides. Lock sees the new generation of audience as much more demanding, looking for a “mix of education, entertainment, excitement [and] danger”.

He also draws a comparison with reality TV, something Drive to Survive has been accused of mirroring a little too closely.

“What you’re seeing is a shift from people focusing on the flag to flag into why they won, why they lost, and who they are,” Lock says.

This is something that Lock has noticed in terms of how Hollywood has depicted motorsport over the last few years. The focus isn’t on the battle for the championship – it’s about James Hunt versus Niki Lauda, who they were as people.

Audiences wanting to know what’s behind the story has inspired Nascar to take greater strides internationally, complementing the three series it already sanctions overseas. Nascar has historically been exclusively North American, and very regional at that. But a viewer can live stream any race anywhere in the world. If you live in the UK, you can follow Nascar just as well as any American can.

For Lock, travelling to Le Mans next season will provide the opportunity to bring all that to life.

“It [allows] us to bring the storytelling over to Europe and introduce people to the characters,” he says. “Not just the drivers, but the crew chiefs, the girlfriend or boyfriend, the backstory of overcoming adversity.

“I think that everybody in motorsport is waking up to the fact that the public audience demands a richer and deeper interaction.”


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