When I was in high school, I had a good friend who worked concessions at the North Carolina Motor Speedway. In fact, more than 20 years later, he still works in concessions in racing.
Having a friend who was in that line of work during your teenage years had a number of advantages:
— Vendor passes to races (I was too young to get a media credential)
The first two were great. The third was solid gold.
No, I’m not saying I smoked. I lived with a smoker, that was gross.
But the high school I went to was like prison and cigarettes were currency. So you have this straight: I was not into smoking, but running a quasi-criminal enterprise around free Winstons was right up my alley.
There is a point to this, and it’s coming.
Who remembers going to a Winston Cup race in the 70s, 80s or 90s? If you didn’t leave with at least one carton of Winstons, you were doing something wrong. If you had a friend who worked concessions and could get his truck inside the gate after the checkered flag, your whole circle of friends went home with an arm full of Winstons or Winston Lights or, if you were really lucky, Camel Lights.
In addition to the smokes, there were sweet wildly wild t-shirts, jackets, cozies, posters, posters of scantily-clad women and all other manner of fun stuff. It was a carnival of excess that made the state fair look like the Concour d’Elegance Pebble Beach.
And it was amazing.
And there is still a point to this.
Winston was 110 percent bought into their NASCAR sponsorship when they finally figured out how to make it work about the time Cale Yarborough won his first championship until about the time Bobby Labonte won his. It was full-on brand activation. Winston red was everywhere at the track. The All-Star Race was simply The Winston. The last chance race to get into the all-star race was The Winston Select, which was one of their cigarette lines. That’s damn genius. The “Winston Million?” Again, genius. I mean, their product was at least worth a million dollars, and that was 1985. That is like $100 million now.
There was also Miss Winston, who I remember being the hottest women ever. And, since they were repping a cigarette company, you always felt like you had a shot, unlike Miss Sprint Cup. She won’t ever return a phone call.
Of course, Winston, due to myriad reasons, ended its entitlement sponsorship of NASCAR in 2003 and gave way to Nextel in 2004. Shortly thereafter, Nextel was acquired by Sprint and the sponsorship changed names for the 2008 season.
Sprint announced in 2014 that it would end its run as the title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier division after the 2016 season, but it feels like they ended well before and just kept going because, well, the contract said they had to. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good people who have worked hard on the relationship from the telecom giant’s end, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would say Sprint has put a large amount of resources into fan-experience-based activation of their investment at the track. Part of it has to do with the fact that it takes a lot more effort and creativity to sling cell phones at a race track than cigarettes. The other part has to do with the fact that Sprint didn’t sign up to be the sponsor; Nextel did. The original deal was said to be for 10 years and the sponsorship lasted for 13 years. In 2015, Sprint discontinued its “Sprint Experience” interactive display area, ending whatever large-scale at-track activation they carried out.
And there is a point to this history lesson.
It was announced last week that Monster Energy Drink would be the next entitlement sponsor for NASCAR’s top series beginning in 2017. While the particulars were not revealed, the estimate is that the dollar amount is somewhere around 40 percent of what Sprint paid over the last few years.
But even at that, this new marriage has the opportunity to be advantageous for both Monster and NASCAR.
Monster is much more relevant to the young fan NASCAR wants to bring in. They are involved in the NASCAR already. They are a player in motocross and the X Games sports; both of which attract the fans NASCAR thinks are its future.
More importantly, Monster will show up. They will be at the track. There will be things for racegoers to do and experience at the track; not just on the track. Like it or not racing purists, but we are solidly into an experiential economy and you have to give people more for their money and time. I remember more about my times at the race track than the actual races (Kyle Petty was good at Rockingham, that’s about it. But I remember getting a picture with Miss Winston and a carton of Winston Selects in 1991).
So here is my advice to the good folks at Monster (because we all know they asked): Be more like Winston and less like Nextel/Sprint. High school boys nationwide will thank you.
Andy Cagle is a motorsports journalist and public relations flack from Rockingham. You can find him on twitter @andy_cagle or reach him via email at [email protected]