By Dan Coughlin
Thanks to the extraordinary hospitality of the folks at Toyota Motorsports, I had a dream day for a business writer on July 12th. My next book, which will be coming out in a year, is about management lessons gleaned from the history of auto racing.
On July 12th I attended the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LifeLock.com 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway. The race began at 7 PM, and I drove into the parking lot at 11 AM; it was eight hours before the action started. Or so I thought. It turns out that I was attending my first NASCAR race as a fan on the exact 50th Anniversary of Richard Petty’s first NASCAR race as a driver.
If I had had even a small clue about how many management insights I would gain from studying auto racing, I would have written this book five years ago. Here are just a few things I learned.
A NASCAR race is so much more than just a car race. It’s a Super Bowl event. There were 75,000 people there, and I estimate there were at least 20,000 people tailgating at 11 AM. I repeat, this was eight hours before the race started. It’s a giant carnival, with actual old-fashioned barkers yelling out that they had free offers inside their tents. It’s a giant concert with singers and entertainers on stage all day. It’s a massive outdoor mall with over 100 booths selling caps, shirts, buttons, miniature cars, giant corn dogs, and even lemonade.
A NASCAR event attracts every conceivable brand name product. I walked through the largest Abraham Lincoln museum I’d ever been in, and it was on wheels. I even saw a display set up with dozens of the largest and most magnificent televisions I had ever seen.
The race – and the organization – provided value beyond its product.
What is the overall concept of the value your company offers and how can you deliver that value in synergistic ways that can support each other?
Personalize Your Brand
The strongest brands there were the racecar drivers themselves. People of all ages wore shirts with the faces and numbers of their favorite drivers. There was booth after booth of shirts, cups, cars, and other take home goodies with pictures of an individual driver and the number of their car on them. I bought two small replicas for both of my children of the M&M’s car that Kyle Busch drives and a Toyota Racing t-shirt for myself.
On top of all that, the drivers themselves appeared all over the place to meet with fans. These drivers are highly paid and are doing extremely intense and dangerous work for nearly three hours during the race. However, for several hours leading up to the race they are going around and saying hello to fans.
Can you imagine a CEO who makes millions and millions of dollars a year going around to customers for several hours to talk with them right before an important board meeting? That’s essentially what these racecar drivers do before every race.
How can you make your organization’s brand more personal for customers?
Create an Experience
There are 43 drivers who compete at each NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race and there are 36 such races each year all over the U.S. This is a traveling circus that is bigger than any circus I had ever witnessed. And then there’s the race itself. You haven’t heard loud until you’ve heard a NASCAR race. If you haven’t been to a race, then watching it on television doesn’t demonstrate the speed well either. These cars were within a few inches of each other going at least 160 MPH and jumping from high to low on the turns in the track.
The whole day pulsated with lessons both on and off the track including: branding, innovation, teamwork, strategy, execution, planning, problem solving, winning, dealing with change, and preparation. It wasn’t just a race; it was a 360 degree experience. I encourage you to read “One Helluva Ride” by Liz Clarke, which is about the history of NASCAR and also provides powerful thoughts on business momentum.
How can your organization take your product and create a compelling experience around it?
Make Your Own Pit Row
One of the highlights of the day was being allowed to spend 45 minutes walking up and down pit row a few hours before the race started. Pit row houses 43 pit stalls used to replace tires, refuel cars, and fix any car problems. The actual racecars were sitting about 25 feet away from pit row itself while I walked up and down.
This was branding heaven. A place where customers, corporations, and racing teams all met in one spot. It created an extraordinary win-win-win situation. The racing teams provided additional value to the customers by letting them see up close where the cars went during the race. I saw hundreds of photos being taken where fans would sit with the crew members and get their pictures taken in the pit stalls. Every one of those pictures the fans took had corporate logos in them. That meant the sponsors would be seen thousands of times when those pictures were developed and shown with pride to family members and friends. These corporate sponsors weren’t just hidden on the last page of a brochure. They were part of the fan interaction with the racing teams at the pit stalls.
As I watched all of this several questions popped into my mind. Can you imagine professional baseball or football players letting fans look in their lockers a few hours before the game and have their pictures taken standing in front of those lockers? Can you imagine corporate logos all over the lockers and the field itself? You might think that would ruin those games, and you might be right. However, think of the total cost of going to a Major League Baseball game or an NFL Game. I can’t afford to take my wife, Barb, and our children, Ben and Sarah, to very many Major League Baseball games. We have this thing called college tuition to pay for someday. The last time I went to a Major League Baseball game it cost me something like $225 for one night.
At the NASCAR event, the parking was free, the food was reasonable, and the ticket prices were not exorbitant.
How can you create a pit row in your business? Make a list of all of the types of customers you have. Now make a list of all of the companies that would like to sell to those customers. Could you create a unique event for your customers featuring your products and services? Could you then include other companies at that event as sponsors who would underwrite the cost of the event and benefit from being in front of your customers?
Mind the Caution Flags
During the race there is one turn in the track that has nothing to do with what’s right in front of the racecar driver. It’s called the caution flag. When debris lands on the track or a car gets damaged while racing, the caution flag is waved and all the drivers have to slow down and get behind the pace car. That doesn’t seem too bad, except for the lead driver, who has to slow down and let all the other cars line up right behind them. The cushion suddenly evaporates.
This same thing happens in business. You’re doing a good job and staying focused. You’ve built tremendous momentum and you are well beyond the projected pace. Your organization is by far the best in the industry, and you continually generate significant, sustainable, and profitable growth.
Then suddenly the market place changes. Instantly all of the businesses in your industry slow way down. A series of national stories about your industry immediately sends even your most loyal customers searching for alternatives.
Think of the housing downturn that occurred in 2007 and 2008. Suddenly the most successful and the least successful real estate agents were compressed into an incredibly tight market. The leader’s lead was no longer what it had been. When there is even an isolated incident of Mad Cow disease, it sends restaurants and grocery stores into a temporary spiral, whether they were way ahead of their plan or way behind.
This is why it is so important to focus on improving performance and not solely on your relative position compared to others at any given moment. Just because you had a great or terrible quarter doesn’t mean you’re stuck in that position forever. Perhaps your competitor made a big sale right before the quarter ended, and you made one right after the next quarter started. It looks like you’re way behind when in reality you’re not.
When your market gets compressed how will you be prepared to win the race in front of you?
I encourage you to go to a NASCAR race, but get there way, way before it starts and let the lessons on management soak in.
Dan Coughlin is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, and author of “Accelerate: 20 Practical Lessons to Boost Business Momentum.” He speaks on entrepreneurial habits, quality, leadership, branding, sales, and innovatio