Some auto racing fans may be mourning the demise of the International Race of Champions (IROC), currently in the process of auctioning off its assets. So what’s the marketing significance? For years, NASCAR had an unofficial ban on sponsorships by spirits companies. So when Diageo had the chance to tie its Crown Royal brand to the IROC series a few years ago, it saw a chance to get a tire into the racing game. Was it a good move? As I reported in 2004 for our sister publication PROMO, IROC, a 31-year old auto racing series that featured all-stars from several driving formats driving the same type of car, was about to die because it couldn’t find title sponsorship. Spirits company Diageo came in with a 12th-hour deal to save the series, and would market IROC through its Crown Royal brand.
Since spirits sponsorships had been unofficially banned from NASCAR, Crown Royal wanted to show racing’s big wigs that a liquor company (they hate being called that, they say it’s not politically correct) could be a sponsor and not drive its fan base to drink.
So it added a responsibility message to every piece of the sponsorship, wowed the racing community with promotional efforts in-store, at NASCAR events, and at off-the-beaten-racetrack locations like Fenway Park.
But by the time I hit Richmond International Speedway in Virginia to talk with the folks from Diageo about the sponsorship, they were already getting cozy with NASCAR driver Kurt Bush, who was pitching Crown Royal as an IROC driver, in case the rumored unofficial ban was lifted. A few months earlier, Diageo had tried to support an unsponsored car driven by Jeff Burton, but was denied.
It was clear that Diageo saw IROC as a way to sponsor motorsports on the cheap, and use its new vehicle as a stepping stone to the big leagues. It was also evident that if it was invited to sponsor NASCAR, it would fund the IROC series for the 2005 series, kind of as a thank-you to IROC president Jay Signore.
Matter of fact, Crown Royal fulfilled its contractual obligation and backed IROC in 2006, too. Though neither side ever disclosed how much its sponsorship cost, Diageo officials claimed it was “significantly less” than a NASCAR team sponsorship, which at the time ranged between $12 million and $16 million.
But even at that low of cost, there was a risk factor for Diageo’s Crown Royal brand. Yes, its logo adorned the hood of each driver’s car, but the exposure to racing fans was still minimal.
That season, IROC ran only four events as an undercard on NASCAR’s schedule, and the races were televised live on Speed Channel, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday nights, which has never been a good time slot to be in unless you are on NBC.
Back in 1974 though, when IROC was born, it was a made-for-television race featured on ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports. That was well before the days of cable and satellite television showing sporting events all across the dial, so the weekly show pretty much owned loyal sports enthusiasts back in the day.
The night I was in Richmond, the stands, to put it nicely, were not packed to 94,000-plus capacity to see Helio Castroneves, Danny Lasoski, and Scott Sharp mix it up with NASCAR favorites Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, and Matt Kenseth.
IROC did not run a sponsorless season in 2007, and announced before the 2008 race card began that it was ceasing operations.
In a way, it can to thank Crown Royal for keeping it alive three more seasons, even if it was more or less for testing purposes. But with all of NASCAR’s unofficial sponsorship bans lifted, you can’t blame anyone in the brand marketing community that wanted to enter the race arena for bypassing minimum publicity for NASCAR’s maximum exposure.