As I mentioned some time ago my good friend Ed Rueda has been relentlessly burning the midnight oil with one goal in mind: Bringing NASCAR to the Hispanic Community. His dream is to see more Hispanic last names on the pits, garages, driver's seat and specially on the stands, as well as sponsorships catering to the Latino community, be it National or International, Hispanic owned or not.
He's been working me to get exited about the idea for several months now. Finally our schedules coincided and we hooked up during the Nextel cup's Dickies 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth, TX late last year. I confess I am a neophyte when it comes to stock car racing, briefly following it back in the days when Richard Petty was riding his light blue and orange #43 Ford Torino on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I was a couple feet shorter and had a full set of hair. Yet, I clearly could hear the cash register going off in my brain given all the opportunities I could envision by what I saw that day, in increasing the Latino involvement in this sport.
Driving to the racetrack very early Sunday morning, I could not believe the traffic heading that direction. While the other side of the road was as empty as any road should be at 6:30AM that day, there were just a few pavement spaces without some sort of vehicle over it on the road to 3545 Lone Star Circle, Justin, TX.
After getting my credentials, graciously provided by then #99 Rousch Racing Team car chief, Pierre Kuettel, I went to find a place to park. RV’s, big trucks and SUV’s (and I mean BIG… hey, we were in Texas!), and a few “normal” cars were parked everywhere. Families were preparing breakfast on their portable grills and serving them on portable tables and lawn chairs. A few people were catching some Z’s inside their cars and trucks, I assume saving the dollars they would’ve spent on a hotel room in order to have that additional cash to finance the race day experience. Droves of people walking to the track, and the race wouldn’t start for another seven and a half hours. Everyone and everything had some type of NASCAR merchandise on: Jackets, caps, t-shirts, flags, pants, backpacks, bags… you name it, they had it. These guys are passionate about their race teams.
Walked by the Sponsor’s tents, where hundreds of persons were waiting to enter and get “wined and dined” by the companies that believe and are investing a good chunk of their ad budget on the Loyalty of the NASCAR fans. Everyone, without hesitation, confirms that they have an amazing ROI on the dollars spent.
Then, along with Ed, we walked through what seemed like miles of trailers and stands from Sponsors and race teams. People were buying everything from Tylenol to Leather jackets. There were army recruiters, newspaper subscription offers, and inflatable seat cushions with a built-in can holder (only in America!) at 2 for $15. It was quite interesting to see the dynamics going on at the race team trailers, how people were lining up to buy stuff, anything, from the most popular drivers, while for others there wasn’t much going on. I was impressed by the fact that through NASCAR, Pfizer could make Viagra a hip brand that many men were proudly displaying on their shirts and leather jackets!
This is truly something for the whole family, there’s “Race Girl” women’s clothing, toys for the kids, virtual reality rides, live music, food, and all sorts of other gadgets… cash was changing hands as fast as the cars would be circling the race track later that day.
Even though in Texas, a “Majority-Minority” state that 7,781,211 Latinos call home, this was the first time I really, truly felt like a minority during my almost 4 years of living here. My rough estimate is that no more than 2% of the crowd had any Hispanic blood running through their veins. It wasn’t hard to find me amongst the thousands of NASCAR fans; a sniper’s dream job. Still, the few Latino fans I saw where as passionate about the sport as any of their “Non-Hispanic White” counterparts. The anticipation on their faces, the attire, the identification with the race teams, everything was there. There’s certainly something primal about this sport that gets under your skin (yes, I’m turning into a gear-head). One little Hispanic girl from Oddessa, TX made quite an impression on me; she had made the road trip with relatives and was having the time of her live, fulfilling a “long time dream” of physically attending a Cup Series race. Her uncle told us that she’s always glued to the TV set during every NASCAR race.
Had the opportunity to meet a couple Latinos that work behind the scenes, at the garage and pits. One a mechanic, originally from El Salvador. Another, a Mexican American driver of one of the team’s 16-wheelers.
Serendipitously, Rousch Racing’s #99 car’s main sponsor, Office Depot, have had a promotion for their small business clients leading to this race. Companies filled out an entry form at the participating Office Depot stores to win a chance to have their logo prominently displayed on the car. Dallas’ Rios Interiors, Latino owned, filled out one of this forms without thinking much about it at the time. Not only did they win, they had their name on the winning car, appearing everywhere on National media the following morning… How’s that for a free ride?
This was the extent of the Hispanic presence during my first NASCAR experience. I’ve read that in other races there has been a higher Latino fan presence in the stands, and learned through Ed, that during the previous days, a couple of Hispanic drivers participated on the Busch series race: Eduardo Goethers and Adrián Fernandez.
Fourteen percent of the United States’ population is Hispanic… What an opportunity for NASCAR, its sponsors, the media, everyone Marketing and advertising, and for the entire Latino community.
An untapped market
I strongly suspect that NASCAR’s fan base as of today is basically as big as it can get as far as their current core audience is concerned and if nothing else changes, it will grow only at the pace of its “organic” growth (The way the birds and the bees do). In order to substantially accelerate the fan base growth in a significant way, they need to begin to cater to those segments of the population (i.e. Latinos) that are underrepresented anyway you look at it. Prior to starting any kind of advertising/marketing effort, NASCAR needs to diversify from within. They need to have more Hispanic staff members in their offices, as part of their teams, on the race tracks. They need to get involved at the community level and be part of the Hispanic families’ lives and special events. They need to promote the involvement of talented Latinos at any and every level of the sport. Bottom line, they need to show them they truly care and are willing to make whatever it takes to be part of their lives. They need to appear unannounced (and even uninvited) and win their place, just as a new kid in school trying to fit in, within the “family”.
Then NASCAR needs to give Hispanics the OPTION of communicating with them and accessing their information in their language of choice. Phone messages, personnel, printed material, web pages, any point of contact should provide this option. Still, it is not only about the language, it is about understanding and embracing this community’s culture and being sensitive to it throughout every single point of contact, be it in English or Spanish.
At the team level, there is a need to look for/groom Hispanic people to participate at every level: Garage and pits, drivers, owners. There are talented Latinos out there that will rise to the occasion and earn their places in NASCAR.
Once NASCAR is able to show that they can walk the walk, then it’s time to get into the Sponsor game. I can picture the Corona car or the Bimbo car, Dos X, Ruiz Foods, Banco Popular, Univision (TV and Radio), Ravinia Partners, Telemundo, SiTV, Hispanic Newspapers, Magazines, Yellow Pages, Tequila Cuervo, Ron Bacardí, Mission Tortillas, and so many other business that are already actively marketing to Hispanics, sponsoring or co-sponsoring one or several “Latino” themed cars… Hispanics use all the products and services the general market does, so not only Hispanic companies will endorse these Latino teams, but big advertisers like P&G, Western Union, Kellogg’s, Shell, Astra-Zeneca, and of course those three big Detroit companies, would be thrilled to tie their brand names to a team that strongly identifies with Latinos.
El que tenga oídos que oiga.