Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: NASCAR’s All About the Kids

It’s all about the kids.

Last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Kansas was a refreshing approach to racing, and not merely because of the rain-soaked outcome after more than three hours of a red flag stoppage; the Johnson-Harvick-usual-suspects-atop-the-leaderboard finish was little more than another reshuffling of mega teams in the series. What made Kansas so refreshing was the race’s sponsor: the Nickelodeon Television Network (owned by Viacom) and its beloved animated icon SpongeBob SquarePants.

The 2015 SpongeBob SquarePants 400 may have sounded unusual as race names go, but the massive, popular appeal of the television program was anything but out of the ordinary.

I heard one Nickelodeon executive say that many of today’s NASCAR fans were fans of SpongeBob back when they were children (the series premiered in 1999). Now that many of those early fans are both parents AND dedicated followers of NASCAR, the cross-over potential is powerful. When children and their families all have something to recognize and celebrate, the eventual outcome is success on any number of levels.

Apart from the Daytona 500, I cannot think of another NASCAR race that had such mainstream appeal across both sports and entertainment outlets. Not only was the name of the race itself an attention-getter, so too were the various paint schemes and uniform designs found at the track.

I rarely break into a spontaneous smile when I see Casey Mears in his GEICO firesuit (Casey’s a fine person and a talented driver, but his uniform is what it is), but last weekend’s version – emblazoned with an image of SpongeBob’s cranky neighbor and Krusty Krab colleague, Squidward – made me laugh out loud. So, too, did the decals of primary characters from the program plastered across sheetmetal parked on the starting grid.

In all, five different Cup cars carried images of SpongeBob SquarePants characters. Not since NASCAR teams honored branches of the armed services during Operation Desert Storm back in the early 1990s have we seen such a unified effort aimed at drawing attention to a shared interest. Sure, teams carry commemorative decals in honor of charities and social causes, but those stickers are rarely large enough to see easily from the stands (or on television).

SpongeBob and associates were anything but discreet. For more about that, check out some of the photos taken in victory lane. Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team were all but obscured by the famous visitors from Bikini Bottom.

And the kids loved it.

Maybe that’s part of the overall appeal here: many of the top Sprint Cup drivers are the fathers of young children. Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Carl Edwards have little kids, as do Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson. Denny Hamlin’s a dad and Kyle Busch is about to become one. This baby boom is steering NASCAR into uncharted waters; how can a sport with events sponsored by products like Crown Royal, Budweiser and even the NRA, for example, market itself to kids who represent the future of the sport’s fanbase?

We understand that teenagers and young adults are shying away from NASCAR (for whatever reason), but that doesn’t mean we can’t attract that demographic’s younger siblings.

Drawing kids to NASCAR is something fairly recent. Back in the days of the Winston Cup Series, marketing actively to anyone under the age of 18 was illegal. You couldn’t rightfully sell souvenirs and clothing to children if the Winston logo was visible. My daughters were little girls back then, and it was difficult to provide them with suitable gifts from my travels with a race team. Get seen with a tobacco logo on a t-shirt at school, and your parents were likely getting a call from the principal.

Not so with the current era of the Sprint Cup Series. Cellphones are more accepted by society than tobacco products, so now there’s a viable youth market to attract (and exploit?). Toss in a family-friendly event sponsor like Nickelodeon and its legendary SpongeBob SquarePants, and NASCAR can now snare new fans with which to bolster the sport’s future.

I know there’s been criticism within NASCAR Nation about having SpongeBob and friends sponsor last weekend’s race at Kansas. Everything and anything in NASCAR breeds disagreement and suspicion, and I understand that (my outspoken colleagues here at Frontstretch often lead the march of critics toward the gates of Castle Brian). The thing about discourse is that we can agree to disagree as we follow changes within the business. If everything in NASCAR was “perfect” (however you define that term), there’d be no good reason to follow the sport.

All I know is that my 7-year-old son was keeping a close eye on events in Kansas last weekend. He thought the cars looked “cooler” than usual, and he thought seeing SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward and the gang around victory lane was great, even if his favorite driver (Jeff Gordon) wasn’t there.

The future of NASCAR will be strengthened by kids, and my kid was one (of many) who thought the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 was a lot of fun.

I, on the other hand, was thrilled that my 7-year old son actually has a favorite driver.

Maybe the future of NASCAR Nation is brighter than we think.

Maybe it’s all about the kids.

About the author

Frontstretch.com
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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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