NASCAR Cup Series
Collaboration of Racing Industry was on Display at Racers Forum
Oct 18, 2023
At Racers Forum, Jeff Gordon explained that he would like NASCAR teams to be able to rally fanbases regardless of who is driving for the teams much like how fans in other sports rally around their favorite team regardless of who the players are. Brad Keselowski and Heather Gibbs also weighed in on the subject.
Be honest. If you're a die-hard New England Patriots fan, did you follow Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or did you stay loyal to your lifelong team?
While there are certainly always some outliers, the vast majority of New England Patriots fans stayed fans of their favorite National Football League franchise. In the world of stick and ball sports, this is the norm.
While the players constantly change, fans stick with their team.
Tuesday at Racers Forum, Jeff Gordon says he would like to see race teams invest more in their individual brands in an effort to create their own loyal fanbases that stick with their team regardless of which drivers are behind the wheel.
"Joey Logano I heard say this the other day and it kind of hit me, and I was like, 'I love this.' In all other sports, the teams are kind of what the fans are all drawn to. I'm a [San Francisco] 49ers fan, and no matter who the players are, I'm going to like the players on that team," Gordon explained.
Gordon feels if the race teams can connect with the fanbase directly that it will help not only the teams, but the sport as a whole if a massive wave of popular drivers all decide to retire around the same time, like what happened in the late 2010s.
"Joe Montana, of course, was one of my heroes, and I loved him because he was a 49er. When he left the 49ers and went to the Kansas City Chiefs, I was like, 'eh, who's the new quarterback?' I think we have a role as race teams to build our brand up, maybe not as much as the star power of the driver, but in a way where drivers -- and we've seen this recently with Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr., and myself, several big drivers that have huge fan followings stepped away from the sport, and I think it had a big impact on the sport. Because the fans seem to not have a connection to the team as strongly as they did to the driver," Gordon stated.
When you've seen how things run in every other sport, the thought of race fans rallying around their favorite race teams just makes too much sense. It's almost strange that the drivers have outweighed the teams over the years in the eyes of the fans.
Gordon did clarify that he doesn't want to minimize driver star power, as he still feels that ultimately they are the stars of the show. The four-time NASCAR Cup Series championship-winning driver and current Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports explained that he simply doesn't want fans to stop following the sport when their favorite driver hangs up their helmet.
Heather Gibbs, co-owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, believes the answer to building fan bases around specific race teams in the sport lies in showcasing the full team to the race fans. And her team has certainly been practicing what she preaches.
Joe Gibbs Racing has done a phenomenal job of showing off its talented rosters of pit crews in recent years through social media video features, and the team is among the first in the sport that have publicly announced contract extensions for its pit crew members.
"I would say for me, especially having the youngest driver in the field, who doesn't necessarily want all of the attention, that you've got so many other players on the field," Gibbs explained. "I think the personality of our pit crews has really taken off. There's so much diversity, they come from so many different backgrounds. Most of them didn't grow up saying, 'I want to change tires for a living.' Some of these guys don't know anything about NASCAR, they're phenomenal athletes. I love their storyline. I think they're so much fun and can draw in a whole different audience and maybe take some of the pressure off."
Gibbs' take is a unique angle and one that makes a lot of sense as the pit crew is integral to whether a team wins or loses on Sundays. And as she said, it could help alleviate the pressure of needing to rely on driver star power to build a team's fanbase.
Brad Keselowski, driver and owner of RFK Racing, says that the investment in building driver star power was once an initiative of primary sponsorship partners. Nowadays, that burden rests more and more on the shoulders of the race teams, and with how the sport is currently laid out it has become a massive gamble for teams to invest heavily in building a specific driver's brand.
"Right now, there isn't a really good ROI (return on investment) for the teams to invest -- it takes a long time to invest in driver star power unless you have some inherent -- you think of Chase Elliott who had the ability to build off of a name and brand, but most drivers don't," Keselowski said. "That takes a significant investment from someone.
"In years past, that used to be the partners. I look at a guy like Rusty Wallace, and you look at the Miller Beer company and what they did for him to build his brand. That was a big investment over a lot of years. Same with Jeff [Gordon] and DuPont. He certainly earned it with wins to go with it, and those two connect into something very powerful. I think our partners are less willing to do that than they were in years past, so that really puts the burden on the team to do so. And I think that's a huge burden for them, and to that point, if a driver leaves, it's a big loss in that investment, which is not great. And they don't get anything long-lasting value out of it."
Keselowski's point is a great one. Look at the recent example of Tyler Reddick and Richard Childress Racing. RCR invested in Reddick when no other teams would give him an opportunity. The team gave him a championship-winning opportunity in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and then made the decision to move the driver to the NASCAR Cup Series full-time.
After a couple of seasons of knocking on the door, Reddick exploded for three wins during the 2022 season. Reddick was then lured away from RCR and joined 23XI Racing in 2023. Keselowski says if you invest a ton of capital into building a driver's brand, and then they choose to leave, it's a tough situation.
"If that driver leaves and goes to another team, that's just a complete loss," Keselowski explained. "That's my way of saying that we're not fully aligned, at this time as a sport to fully capitalize on driver star power. And because we're not aligned that creates a lack of really true incentives and we're not getting enough movement there. But I think it's really important that we create some kind of system that connects all of this."
What's more important to the long-term health of the sport -- driver star power or building the brands of the race teams?
It's a fascinating question, and it's one of the many impactful conversations that were held in the Inaugural Racers Forum at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesday afternoon.
Photo Credit: Will Bellamy, Racing America