CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — NASCAR’s “wake-up call” about marketing its drivers didn’t come from Kyle Busch on Tuesday.
It came on Feb. 20, 2011 via Trevor Bayne.
That was the day Bayne, a relatively unknown 20-year-old driver from Knoxville,Tennessee, won the Daytona 500 in his second Cup start.
NASCAR was not prepared.
According to Steve Phelps, the sanctioning body’s chief global sales and marketing officer, NASCAR’s marketing at the time was focused on “racing itself and pretty pictures around the racing.” Not the stars.
“With the media’s help frankly, that week leading up to (Bayne’s win), and Jeff Gordon (who pushed Bayne into position to win) and the fact that they were a good tandem, that helped us, but we never wanted to put ourselves in that position again,” Phelps said in a teleconference Wednesday to address the issue of marketing drivers triggered by Busch’s comments this week.
Seven years later, NASCAR has multiple programs in place to promote its young drivers. From Drive 4 Diversity and NASCAR Next to coverage of their accomplishments in the K&N Pro, Truck and Xfinity Series.
“When they finally get up to the Monster Energy Series, they are known quantities,” Phelps said. “They’re winners.”
According to Busch, the marketing strategy doesn’t benefit him and fellow veterans.
“It is bothersome,” Busch said during the NASCAR Media Tour. “We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else, and all you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver. I think it’s stupid. But I don’t know, I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal. You know, I just do what I can do, and my part of it is what my part is.
“I guess one thing that can be said is probably the younger guys are bullied into doing more things than the older guys are because we say no a lot more because we’ve been there, done that and have families, things like that, and want to spend as much time as we can at home. You know, maybe that’s some of it. … Some of these marketing campaigns and things like that, pushing these younger drivers, is I wouldn’t say all that fair.”
Phelps said the comments by the Joe Gibbs Racing driver could be applied to how Busch was lightly promoted during his early years in Cup in the mid-2000s, but they’re not reflective of how NASCAR markets its talent in 2018.
“Do I think that’s fair that when he came into the sport and started winning right off the bat?” Phelps said. “Yeah, I think it’s a fair statement that we did not give that kind of support.”
Phelps said he had a conversation with Busch about marketing late last year.
“We know what we’re trying to do from a marketing perspective, and we believe that we are promoting those drivers in a balanced way, and there are things that some veteran drivers are not interested in doing, and we understand that,” Phelps said.
He was referring to comments made by Ryan Blaney on Wednesday in response to Busch. The Team Penske driver was critical of Busch’s willingness to do some marketing projects.
“We’ve got these fantastic drivers in all these national series who have the opportunity to connect with a fan, and that’s what we want them to do,” Phelps said. “Kyle does a lot for our sport. I think we expose Kyle in a good, meaningful way … Toyota does, as well, M&M’s does, working with the Gibbs guys, and that’s important for us.
“So it’s not about veterans complaining about they’re not getting their fair share … it’s an education process and collaborating together, and Kyle is on the driver council, and if this is a topic that they’re interested in bringing up there or just in person, we’re happy to listen to what he has to say.”