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October 2006
Fueling Nascar’s Identity
By Susanne Deitzel

Hearken, NASCAR fans. You are being watched!

Indeed, wherever you gather – at races or rallies – toting the beverages, boodle and bling of your favorite drivers, nothing you do or say, wear or buy, is beyond scrutiny.

For Motorsports Authentics, L.L.C., knowing what you buy is just business as usual.

In fact, this is the way NASCAR promoters and merchandisers come to know your needs and wants, and leverage that knowledge into the products – everything from souvenirs and memorabilia to toys to clothing to jewelry to, well, just about everything, including the brand of pain reliever – you will buy.

After all, there are 75 million NASCAR fans out there, and growing. And studies show that fans are passionate, hardworking, dedicated, have some money to burn, and are – yes, loyal.

The NASCAR establishment regards these attributes highly and, in turn, endeavors to produce not only high quality racing and entertainment, but also quality products for the fans. In this multimillion dollar arena, the majority of NASCAR industry leaders, from team owners and drivers, pit crews and sponsors, track owners and merchandisers, everybody recognizes the importance of keeping it real.

 

POLE POSITION

One such company, Motorsports Authentics, is just a hop, skip and a screech from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Residing on the plumb real estate of Performance Drive with other motor-minded businesses, the company brands the merchandise and memorabilia of NASCAR’s gladiators of speed.

Created by a 50-50 partnership of NASCAR monarchs, International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports Incorporated (SMI), Motorsports Authentics comes from excellent gene stock. The company is responsible for acquiring, licensing, designing and bringing to market the majority of authentic driver merchandise including apparel, die cast cars, souvenirs and collectibles, jewelry, home decorating goods, ad infinitum.

NASCAR fans have provided a seemingly unceasing demand for such merchandise, and the NASCAR industry works hard to keep the spirit of NASCAR in the hands of the fans.

At the helm of Motorsports Authentics is former Dubliner Ruth Crowley. She came to the company from the merchandise division of Harley-Davidson, where she was in charge of design and development of all Harley-Davidson clothing, functional gear, gifts and collectibles and all licensing and distribution, as well as brand management and dealer development.

Crowley, who also spent time with Universal Studios, Host Marriott Corporation, Eddie Bauer, The Limited and May Company, came from Harley-Davidson with a certain reputation for her refusal to compromise the integrity of the product under any circumstance, which has earned her a lot of credit in the respect department.

She explains the heart of merchandising best: “Merchandise is what I believe to be a fan’s connection to the sport, what brings them close and makes them a part of it. In addition to hard dollars, there is a lot of emotional and psychological currency being spent to enhance the experience and memorialize these events.”

Crowley is an articulate and erudite marketer. But she is far from what fans might fear is becoming a number crunching, cell phone toting, suit-fest with the single goal of draining their wallets. In fact, she is a diminutive brunette with a lilted Irish brogue and a passion for the color purple, who also harbors absolutely no compunction about speaking her mind.

And honestly, she can’t afford to. Crowley is responsible for managing and balancing the vested interests of team owners, drivers and teams, sponsors, track owners and NASCAR, to make sure everyone is satisfied with representation on the merchandise, as well as assuring that the products the company produces are, in her words, “relevant and authentic.”

It is a weighty responsibility to be highly creative and detail-oriented at the same time. Says Crowley, “Logistically, it can be a dance. Designing merchandise and maintaining the integrity of each key component in terms of team mark, driver’s number, main sponsor, secondary sponsors, event, and team colors on every piece is essential and must be executed perfectly. Every little spot on a car is a brand mark to one of the sponsors and teams - it is important that it be accurate. We have to handle it with care.”

Yet Crowley is driven to take it a step further. “We try to make sure that the identity of our drivers is translated into our merchandise. So much of the experience is based upon how the fan relates to the drivers – it becomes a personal relationship.”

Finding the heart and soul of an experience and translating that into a product that will crystallize that experience is Crowley’s forte. “Bottom line,” she says, “if you want a customer to connect with a product emotionally or otherwise, it has to be relevant and authentic – this has to be the base principle in all you do.”

 

TELEMETRY

A lot of racing has to do with strategy, and no less so in the business end of things. Crowley says, “If there isn’t a plan, it isn’t going to get done.” However, with Motorsports Authentics, the aim is considerably more complicated than ‘turning left and going fast…’

NASCAR merchandising has quite a few tentacles, which extend to collectibles, trackside products, online stores, and the mass retail end seen at Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart and dollar stores. The product for each merchandise channel is differentiated and customized to the market to suit the fan it is in front of at any given time.

The mass retail brand of Motorsports Authentics is Winner’s Circle, which strives to accommodate the 50 percent of NASCAR fans who say that they shop at least once a month in a mass channel.

Comments Crowley, “For the customer at Wal-Mart, the product is just as authentic and collectible as the product at the track. It is just differently constructed and displayed to target different demographics. One demographic might favor bold driver graphics, another team colors or quieter suggestions of affiliation. It is all about the fan, their preferences and the priorities they have in a particular channel at a particular time.”

Another undeniable component of Motorsports Authentics’ strategy is the acquisition of several key brands of merchandise. In December, 2005, the company announced the high profile acquisition of Action Performance Companies, Inc., preceded by the purchase of Team Caliber in September 2005 and Chase Authentics, the authentic trackside apparel of NASCAR, in 1998. The company also stables goracing.com, Funline, Trevco, and Minichamps under its fulsome umbrella. These brands represent the ‘Dream Team’ of NASCAR merchandise; Crowley sees it “as a demonstration of our commitment to building a sustainable model and an authentic experience for the racing fans.”

However, more than the marketing channels or the brands for delivery, Motorsports Authentics places a studied emphasis on the fans themselves. “We have taken research to deeper levels, and especially this year, we have a much heightened sensitivity to the individuality of the fan,” says Crowley. “One size doesn’t fit all. Not only do we need to reach out to all the fans, but we have to reach out to them in a way that is meaningful to them individually.”

For her part, Crowley and her team spend hours at the track, people watching. She breaks each driver’s fan base into its constituencies, and then tries to go about “finding what the fan wants before they are even aware it exists.” While the level of attention may seem exhausting, Crowley says, “There is no room for complacency – we have to continuously look to find what I call ‘the next right answer’ in order to earn the trust of our stakeholders and maintain share of wallet with our fans. We have a lot of work yet to do!”

After all, there are not only hard-core fans of the type that Crowley says “identifies or aspires to some element they attribute to their favorite driver,” but also fans of corporate affiliation, which can be held concomitantly. The end result is a dizzying list of fan permutations based on both intuition and statistics.

Crowley specializes in the former, while enjoying great access to the latter. Her time at the track, for example, has enabled her to see that all drivers have distinct types of fan bases. Her talent comes in handy as a party trick: she can hold a brief conversation with a person and correctly guess their favorite driver.

 

DOWNFORCE!

It is this human element that belies the true passion of the sport, and where Ms. Crowley’s talents are heroic. Driver characteristics such as driving styles, track behavior, comeliness or lack thereof, the underdog or the aggressor, and black hat-white hat personas, add drama to the torque.

But speed, like money, is a highly metriced value, and NASCAR is gauged by both. For all its insight and humanity, there is plenty of customer data driven by focus groups, sponsors, NASCAR, ISC and SMI, and other businesses that crunch fan stats this way and that. Comments Crowley, “One huge way that the industry has evolved is that everything has become an information source…you have to be a willing student and be ready for the next data pull.”

Yet, Crowley says that while all the data is extremely valuable, it also needs to be tempered by the situational knowledge acquired at the track and at retail. “There are loads of ideas that haven’t been tapped yet, and a lot of opportunities. We have to stay ahead of the game by being truly invested in the hearts and minds of the fans, in the passion of the drivers to win and in the investment of the race teams and their sponsors to excel.”

Crowley mentioned that up and comer Pablo Montoya will bring an exciting opportunity to customize merchandize for his personality and culture, and that Toyota’s initiation into NASCAR as well as the highly publicized Car of Tomorrow, will bring new products to the fore.

At the same time, Crowley insists that NASCAR will continue to sustain the traditional blue collar fan base. “The NASCAR story is a very human one. Drivers have good days and bad days just like all of us – as long as there is that human element that we can continue to relate to, I only see the fan base continuing to grow.”

Which should be quite a challenge for Motorsports Authentics. Walking a tightrope between its two customer bases – NASCAR fans of all shapes, sizes and colors on one side and NASCAR teams, sponsors and owners on the other, the company is poised with thousands of products and a paintbrush ready to do their bidding.

But Crowley is well equipped for the task. She enjoys widespread support from the industry and NASCAR’s leading families – the Frances and the Smiths, which also happen to be her bosses. She is also highly respected by race teams, sponsors and track owners. Her no-nonsense approach, considerable expertise, and penchant for intuiting the customer’s next thought is where the proverbial rubber hits the road.

Crowley attributes much of her success to building a good team and being a continuous learner. “I don’t have a problem with admitting I don’t know everything. I believe you have to continue to be curious to be creative. I am fortunate to gain support and work to earn it every day.”

She also continues to hammer the importance of relevance. “You must not only design quality and value into the product, but also substance and authenticity. You can be innovative, but you must keep it real.”

And perhaps one of Crowley’s most obvious tenets is the value of people. “Human equity and respect will eventually get you where you want to be. Our team here at Motorsports is awesome. For us, it is not just about product, but also valuing the passions, the time and the pocketbook of the customer that is our business. The legacy of this sport is in our hands….that is serious business.”

Of Motorsports Authentics’ parent companies Crowley comments, “SMI and ISC have a rich legacy in investment in this sport. I believe in their unique respects, SMI and ISC share common values and have always shown a nurturing yet protective approach to the sport, while also continuing to be progressive and evolutionary. It is a great example of how authenticity can meld with innovation.”

“I believe successful business outcomes are a product of doing things right,” she says with finality.

Whether you are on the field, in the stands, on the couch, or someday visiting Charlotte’s new NASCAR Hall of Fame – Motorsports Authentics is everywhere NASCAR is.

And fortunately for Crowley and Motorsports Authentics, it is becoming more and more difficult to discern where NASCAR isn’t!

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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