Driven by women, upstart agency’s social strategies helping build racing stars’ brands

Lauren Edwards
0 Comments

Lauren Edwards took a lifetime leap of faith on the long-distance advice of a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion dialing in from the ski slopes of Aspen.

Jimmie Johnson, who had employed Edwards for five years as his digital and social media manager, was going up a mountain when he made the fateful phone call on Dec. 30, 2016.

“He said, ‘I’ve got two minutes, I’m on a gondola, here are my thoughts: Go start a company!’ ” Edwards told NBC Sports with a laugh.

Within three weeks, she had founded Reine Digital, which counted Johnson as its first client and since has grown to become a female-powered auto racing industry upstart representing brands and drivers across multiple series.

Lauren Edwards (right) with Amy Stock Walsh, longtime publicist for Jimmie Johnson, in November 2018 at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where Johnson tested Fernando Alonso’s McLaren (Lauren Edwards).

“I hadn’t really planned or thought about (owning a company),” said Edwards, who had been in NASCAR PR and marketing since graduating from William and Mary in 2008, working on Sprint accounts before joining Johnson’s team. “But 95 percent of the reason I did it was that athletes of Jimmie’s caliber don’t turn to people and say, ‘Start a business, I’ll just be a client!’

Edwards with Stock and John Lewensten, Johnson’s business manager, at the 2019 Boston Marathon. (Photo: Lauren Edwards).

“I’ll never get this opportunity again. I’ll regret if I don’t take it. That factored into it, and it’s been fun to see the growth of the company and direction we’re heading.”

Edwards’ Charlotte-based boutique firm quickly evolved from focusing solely on social media to also handling marketing and communications strategy for several brands and drivers.

Its most recent addition is 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, who joined a driver roster that included Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Alex Bowman. NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte also works with Reine Digital (whose French-inspired name stems from Edwards and her husband, Jon, splitting time between Quebec City and Charlotte, the “Queen City”).

The company, which is comprised of five female employees, also has NASCAR sponsors Axalta and Lumar among its clients, along with some local businesses in Charlotte.

Though its work with Johnson has brought the most exposure for Reine Digital (notably with helping Gatorade’s social impressions spike with Johnson’s run in the 2019 Boston Marathon), Lauren Edwards was proudest of working with Bowman on a popular Tim Richmond throwback campaign for the 2019 Southern 500.

Bowman (a self-described introvert) dressed up as the flamboyant Richmond in his Folgers firesuit from the mid-1980s in a series of viral social posts that were orchestrated by Reine Digital, which helped track down all of the necessary vintage clothing and props in a two-month project.

Bowman, a huge Richmond fan, nixed posing in a Speedo on a boat but was happy to have the original Folgers car as a backdrop (courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports’ museum).

“We thought (the campaign) would be just some fun photos on social, and now it’s included in the marketing collateral for (the 2021 races at) Darlington,” Edwards said. “They’re still talking about it two years later. It’s taken on this whole new life with so much additional value.

“Athletes can make a difference by putting stuff on their social to drive organic conversation for sponsors. Not necessarily by selling a specific product and saying, ‘Here’s the link, go buy it,’ but by getting everyone talking about something with the brand included in it.”

Some of her work has transcended business, such as last June when Edwards helped Johnson assemble the video in which several Cup drivers condemned racism after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

“I talked with a lot of Jimmie’s friends who were very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I helped put the script together,” she said. “I was literally contacting every single driver working on getting their video clips and putting it together.

“We worked really closely with NASCAR to edit it. That was a moment that it was bigger than just me. I’m in this place because I can work with people who have a bigger voice than I do and make a difference.”

During a recent interview with NBC Sports, Edwards, 34, outlined how social media has evolved, her vision for Reine Digital and the progress of women in motorsports (the excerpts below were lightly edited for clarity):


Q: What’s the goal of an agency focused on social and digital branding in NASCAR and how does it differ from traditional PR?

Edwards: “In a nutshell, it’s brand-building with the building block being your online presence in social and digital media. The company has even evolved since we started it. When I first started, it was, ‘OK, we’re going to do social media,’ and what we very quickly realized is so much of what we’re doing on social media is strategic brand building

“It’s so comprehensive between PR, marketing, communications and traditional social media, it’s all tied together. In the very beginning, social media was this weird thing of, ‘I don’t know, does it go to the marketing department of the company? The PR department?’ It was all by itself, and some companies had it in the tech IT department. Working with brands, athletes and individuals, we took it as we’re like boots on the ground. We’re the first step for these messages to come across, and from there we’re seeing the PR pickup and marketing strategy built around something that started on social media.”

Q: What’s the philosophy for how you encourage clients to use social media?

Edwards: “Where we feel we are experts is understanding, knowing and learning the platforms really well and how to make them work. There are certain groups that see social as a vacuum. ‘Well, this is happening, we’re going to do this.’ That’s not us. That’s part of why we have so much success. We look at it and say, ‘How do we create something that plays well on social but has legs in other avenues?’ And some things are just funny and fun but there is the bigger side of strategically looking at the months ahead. How do we tie this whole big marketing campaign into something that makes sense with a building block online? It is the easiest way to tap into a lot of people. It has the ability to be bigger than just itself.

“If you do something well in the social media space, it can be shared infinitely, which is not always the case with specific at-track marketing. While that’s amazing and has every place in our sport and sports overall, you are limited to the people there at track experiencing that. With social, you’re unlimited. It could get as big as the world if something really blows up.”

Reine Digital CEO Lauren Edwards gathering digital and social content during Jimmie Johnson’s first IndyCar test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year (Lauren Edwards).

 Q: How do you generate ideas such as the Alex Bowman/Tim Richmond posts?

Edwards: “We do a lot of brainstorming. So usually once a month or two months, I try to take the team out of the office away from everything, have a glass of wine and let’s just ideate and come up with fun ideas. Or general conversations on what’s on social and trends we love seeing.”

Q: Is your all-female staff by design?

Edwards: “That is not intentional. Everyone thinks it is. I’m a huge supporter of women in sports, but I’ve tried to hire men before. The last full-time hire, I really wanted to hire a dude and went through some resumes and interviews, but every single hire has been a woman.

“We speak for five male athletes, but you’d never assume we have a female behind a keyboard sending the posts. If people knew all these drivers had this team of females behind them, they’d lose their minds.”

Q: You’ve been working around racing for nearly 15 years including internships, are you seeing signs of progress for women having greater influence and sway in motorsports?

Edwards: “I think some of the outward stuff is getting better — the off-color jokes and comments and those kinds of things you don’t see or hear much anymore. What still does happen, and I think will without more women in senior leadership, is that a lot of times it turns into the boys’ club. All the guys are getting together to go golfing or go to the brewery.

Before joining Jimmie Johnson’s social media team and starting her own company, Lauren Edwards was a weekly presence at tracks while working on the Miss Sprint Cup account (Lauren Edwards).

“It ends up being someone in a very senior position and junior position, and it creates this friendship, and you see some males advancing, not that they’re not qualified, but there are more doors and opportunities open to them because they’re creating these relationships. I don’t think it’s intentional, but as you see more females in leadership roles, and they’re getting together and go to a winery with women in organization. That’s when it will start to change. We just need more women in those places. You need that from the senior level to even out the boys’ club mentality sometimes.”

Q: A common sentiment is that sponsorship often has kept women from excelling in racing. Do you feel a greater sense of agency in changing that through your business?

Edwards: “One of my biggest struggles is with self-worth above purpose. I know I’m good at what I’m doing, but how am I bettering anyone? Because I’d gone to college and was passionate about economic development and a big part of it was there are so many systems in place that can be made better and make peoples’ lives better.

“The last year, there have been so many moments I feel like I’ve been able to help make a difference. It makes me feel so good. That’s what I’m starting to see from the female side of things. I am now a part of conversations that I never would have been a part of before. I have the ability to influence things because of the role that I have with many different companies and athletes and even within the industry. I’m starting to get a lot of outreach and being in meetings I never would have been in before. And I never sat down before and said, ‘I want to be a CEO, an entrepreneur,’ but now that I’m in this space, there are opportunities opening to me, and I feel really fortunate to be able to be in that position and try to make a difference.”

NBC Sports is proud to celebrate Women’s History Month.
For the latest in women’s sports news and features all year round:

Bookmark the On Her Turf blog: www.nbcsports.com/on-her-turf

Follow On Her Turf on Twitter and Instagram

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

3 Comments

NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

1 Comment

Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

2 Comments

A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

0 Comments

FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”