Junior’s Victory Tour Takes Him To F1 Country
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Victory Tour Across America includes a stop Tuesday afternoon on behalf of Texas Motor Speedway in Austin.
That’s neither a typo nor a geographical gaffe. And worry not, loyal TMS season ticket-holders – O. Bruton Smith’s “Great American Speedway” has not magically been relocated from Fort Worth and Denton County during the winter to a locale outside the state capitol in Travis County.
So, why Monday’s email invitation to the Scholz Garten in Austin for today? Not enough eateries in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to feed the freeloading media?
Well, here’s one theory. First, NASCAR’s Integrated Marketing Communications team dutifully has been sending the new Daytona 500 champion into the key North Texas market to promote TMS’ annual spring race for several seasons. But those visits typically have been for whirlwind media ops and personal appearances within the Metroplex, like Matt Kenseth’s evening with the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center after winning his second Daytona 500 in 2012.
Earnhardt’s detour into Austin – as cool as it will be for Junior Nation – nominally will be to promote the recently redubbed Duck Commander 500 in Fort Worth from April 3-6. Junior’s rain-delayed victory Sunday night amounted to a promotional coup for TMS President Eddie Gossage. Eddie absolutely dotes over the fact that Dale Jr., son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, scored both his first NASCAR Nationwide Series (1998) and Sprint Cup Series (2000) victories in Fort Worth.
Additionally, the spring Cup race annually is the largest-attended, single-day sporting event in Texas, with crowds in excess of 150,000 since the 1.5-mile quadoval opened in 1997.
And then consider this – Gossage already has a “hook” to draw fans into TMS in April. That would be “Big Hoss TV,” billed as the world’s biggest HD video board created by Panasonic. “Big Hoss” is scheduled to be completed by Saturday and officially dedicated during pre-race ceremonies for the Duck Commander 500 on April 6.
Towering 12 stories high over the backstretch, “Big Hoss” will provide fans with 20,633.34-square feet of HD imagery. It will be 79 percent larger than the video board at AT&T Stadium/Jerry’s World (11,520- square feet), home of the Dallas Cowboys. It also will surpass current record-holder Charlotte Motor Speedway (16,000-square feet), the Speedway Motorsports, Inc., sister track to TMS, for the world’s largest HD video board at a sporting venue.
“This is the largest fan amenity we have ever undertaken in the history of Texas Motor Speedway and it truly should be a game-changer in the industry,” Gossage said in a statement updating construction last week. “Panasonic has done a tremendous job in keeping the project on-schedule and have their crews working around the clock seven days a week on this enormous undertaking. Given the target completion date of March 1, we’re working on a “Big Hoss TV” sneak preview event with a dynamic entertainment element that will be open to the public in mid-March that will be announced soon.”
With all that as promotional fodder, Junior’s whistle stop in Austin represents what appears to be a pre-emptive strike on the part of Gossage for much later in this long, NASCAR season. Specifically, we’re talking about the annual AAA Texas 500, which again will be Round 8 of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Junior’s victory Sunday night all but solidified his spot in the Chase under NASCAR’s new championship format announced in January. The revamped Chase system nearly guarantees that a victory during the first 26 races of the season earns one of 16 berths in the playoffs, providing there are not 17 or more different winners during that span. Earnhardt has qualified for the Chase six times in his career since the format was introduced in 2004.
TMS has been one of Junior’s more dominant tracks, as he has logged 13 top-10 finishes in 23 career starts. Junior finished second to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in last fall’s AAA Texas 500. It was Junior’s best finish at TMS since his victory in 2000 and gave him his fifth top-10 result in his last six starts in Cowtown.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of a noticeable drop-off in attendance for last November’s Cup race, Gossage and his staff learned in December they will be competing head-to-head for the motorsports fan’s dollar against the third annual Formula One United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin Oct. 31-Nov. 2.
Gossage has noted during previous interviews that marketing studies conducted by TMS show little crossover between F1 and NASCAR fans – that they are comprised of largely different demographic groups. But certainly there is a considerable portion of fans who follow all forms of motorsports and who likely would have attended both races, even given the close calendar proximities of the events in Fort Worth and Austin during the previous two Novembers. Same with Texas media who look forward to covering the growing number of big-time motorsports events conducted in the Lone Star State.
COTA Chairman Bobby Epstein noted that F1’s organizers deal with “incredible scheduling and logistical considerations” when setting their global race dates and locations.
“We are pleased that our date falls on a weekend that doesn’t conflict with any major conventions scheduled for Austin, due to the impact that kind of overlap could have on hotel availability,” Epstein said in a statement. “In early November, Central Texas hotels are wide-open, and it’s a beautiful time of year to visit Austin and experience our immersive Formula 1 weekend.
“Due to the large number of NASCAR events scheduled annually, there will occasionally be overlaps with events at Circuit of The Americas, and that will happen (in November 2014). However, there are few similarities between a NASCAR race and the Formula 1 weekend we have developed. The F1 USGP is a massive, fun and entertaining experience that has performed well against all kinds of competition. Many members of the public were concerned that our first F1 race fell on the same date as the season-ending NASCAR race in Homestead, Fla., and it proved to be a non-issue.
“Ultimately, we see this as a great opportunity to draw sports fans from around the world to Texas and to proving again that Austin is the place to enjoy premium racing and entertainment.”
Not surprisingly, NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian Z. France put a different spin on the scheduling conflict with the sanctioning FIA at the close of the last season.
“Well, I wouldn’t have done that myself,” France said. “You might expect me to say that. I’m sure they had the same kind of scheduling challenges that we do. They go all over the world, and that was what they chose. It wouldn’t be my first choice. I expect them to suffer a lot more than Texas will suffer. I don’t think it’s good for either group or either series. That’s their prerogative to schedule events when they want to and see how it works out.”
Sebastian Vettel, the four-time/reigning F1 World Driving Champion from Germany, won last November’s U.S. Grand Prix for Infiniti Red Bull Racing/Renault before an announced crowd of 113,162 fans. That total was down from the inaugural year’s 117,429. Three-day attendance in 2013 was 250,324, down from the inaugural year’s 265,499. Still, those numbers are solid.
I do not recall TMS officials announcing an estimated attendance figure for last fall’s AAA Texas 500, won for the second consecutive year by Johnson en route to his sixth Cup championship. But the weekend began with Johnson and Kenseth in an unlikely, flat-out tie for the point lead after seven Chase races. Despite amped-up Race Week efforts by TMS’ capable public relations staff and Gossage _ generally regarded as stock car racing’s promoter extraordinaire _ the pre-race promotion failed to generate real sizzle.
Johnson, of Hendrick Motorsports, and Kenseth, of Joe Gibbs Racing, spent all weekend talking about how much they respected each other and their organizations and family values and pets…and that didn’t put many fannies into the grandstands, which resembled a good-sized NASCAR Camping World Truck Series crowd.
So, Tuesday’s foray into Austin certainly is about extending Junior’s second Daytona 500 victory celebration at least one more day, one more adult beverage. “We won a big race, we put a lot of effort into it and I’m going to make sure everybody hears about it,” said Junior, driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet SS fielded by Rick Hendrick. “Once you win it, it’s like a color TV _ once you watch color TV for the first time, you don’t want to go back to black-and-white. When I won it for the first time (in 2004), I just couldn’t wait to get back to Victory Lane.”
That said, Tuesday’s visit to Austin also can be interpreted as a proactive reminder to Central Texas’ motorsports fans _ and to TMS’ marketing counterparts at COTA _ that Austin ain’t the only place in the state offering “immersive” and “premium racing and entertainment” this November.
And in the future, perhaps the FIA and F1 shouldn’t mess with NASCAR and TMS.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments