On a muggy Saturday afternoon, two children dragged their parents through the garage area at Kansas Speedway. The kids were intent on catching up to a hero they had seen only on television.
They weren't after star drivers Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, though. They were seeking a giant, yellow Nickelodeon character. It was the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants.
The character's name was attached to the Sprint Cup auto race that featured the sport's biggest stars.
It was exactly what the children's TV network wanted out of its partnership with NASCAR. And just what NASCAR wanted out of the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 race. NASCAR is the organization that oversees stock car racing. Sprint Cup is one of the classes of races within NASCAR.
"You know, you're always looking for a younger demographic," driver Clint Bowyer said. "And what better way to attract that younger demographic? I can't imagine any younger kid not wanting to come to the SpongeBob SquarePants race."
NASCAR has been trying to reach younger demographics for years. That is especially true as stars such as Gordon close in on retirement. The fan base that brought about the racing boom of the 1990s and early 2000s has started to age. So filling that void has become a priority.
That's why a few years ago NASCAR announced a plan. It was designed to attract younger and more diverse fans. It began with a rebuffed website and mobile apps. More mainstream celebrities were invited to races. And concerts and other entertainment were offered at the races..
That was just the start of the outreach, though.
NASCAR has also opened its garages to children accompanied by parents on race days. This allows them to get closer to the cars and drivers. It lowered age limits on some regional competitions. That gave up-and-coming drivers a chance to compete earlier. And it embraced social media, fantasy racing and online simulators such as iRacing. They are popular with younger people.
The push toward a younger demographic in some ways mirrors the push that NASCAR made toward women in the 1980s and '90s. That succeeded in growing the brand.
"This is really cool to engage the youth and bring in a new fan to NASCAR. And that is an important aspect for all of us, for all our partners moving forward in the sport," said Michael McDowell. His No. 95 car was special. It had Larry the Lobster from the SpongeBob show painted on it.
A recent Turnkey Sports poll found that only about 10 percent of NASCAR fans these days are in the 18-to-24 marketing demographic. That is the age group that advertisers and companies that want to appeal to those younger people are looking for. While 10 percent may not be a large number, polls also have found that 37 percent of NASCAR fans have children under age 18.
In other words, there are plenty of potential fans just waiting to get hooked.
"The SpongeBob SquarePants 400 gives Nickelodeon the opportunity to expand its relationship with NASCAR," said Pam Kaufman. She is the chief marketing officer for Nickelodeon Group. She has spearheaded the affiliation with NASCAR.
"Nickelodeon has embarked on some great initiatives with NASCAR over the last 10 years," Kaufman said. The relationship has "resonated with motorsports fans across the country."
This may be an opportune time to attract younger fans, too.
There is a new set of drivers poised to take over the leadership of the sport. Eighteen-year-old Erik Jones made his first Sprint Cup start at the Kansas race. Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott are at an age that resonates with a younger fan base.
Then there are the current Sprint Cup stars with children of their own. Images of Greg Biffle toting daughter Emma around the garage area or Matt Kenseth celebrating with daughters Kaylin and Grace in victory lane, get beamed by television into living rooms every race weekend.
"My daughter is 3 1/2 and she loves watching SpongeBob. And she asked before I left if I could bring him back with me," Biffle said. "It's kind of funny how the kids go in cycles. There are a lot of young kids and a lot of new dads in the garage right."
The sponsorship brought out the child in those dads, too. At the Kansas race, many were caught taking selfies with the SpongeBob character.
"My 6-year old son thinks I am the coolest dad ever. (That's) because I got to drive the Ninja Turtle car. And now I get to drive the Larry Lobster car," McDowell said, wearing a big grin. "I am definitely winning cool points with my kids."
Critical thinking challenge: How does SpongeBob attract adults?
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