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Winter 2014 (March 10, 2014)

Lap Leader

By Ryan Jones

NASCAR needed a change in direction. Eric Nyquist ’94 is helping steer the stock car giant toward new success.

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Eric Nyquist ’94 grew up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, knowing little about auto racing and even less about NASCAR. It was only when he landed a job in New York with the National Football League (NFL), the unquestioned titan of American professional sports, that Nyquist began to appreciate the strategic savvy of stock car racing’s governing body.

“In the halls of the NFL, I started to hear, ‘We need to do this like NASCAR,’ ” says Nyquist, referring to NASCAR’s ability to maximize sponsorship opportunities, as well as the brand and driver loyalty it inspired among fans. “The way they did things was considered ‘best practice’ in a variety of ways,” he recalls.

This was in the late 1990s, when Nyquist was just out of law school and NASCAR was in the midst of an unprecedented popularity boom, expanding beyond its Southern roots into a multibillion-dollar enterprise with international appeal. An array of cultural and demographic shifts contributed to NASCAR’s late-century growth spurt, but for the NFL and every other entity looking for a slice of Americans’ entertainment budgets, the point was that these guys seemed to have figured things out.

Fifteen years later, in a different economic and technological landscape, Nyquist is driving NASCAR’s efforts to once again set the pace.

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Eric Nyquist ’94

Born: Albert Lea, Minnesota

School Sports: Led state of Minnesota in tackles as an all-state linebacker at Albert Lea High School, 1989; hired by head coach Bob Sullivan to coach the Knights’ line-backers as a junior after a back injury forced him to give up playing football and lacrosse at Carleton

Education: BA, international economics, Carleton College, 1994; MBA, finance, University of Chicago, 1998; JD, University of Chicago, 1998; his instructors at the law school included Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and President Barack Obama

Career: Manager of business planning, NFL, 1998–99; executive vice president, Chicago White Sox Enterprises, 1999–2004; managing director, business development, NASCAR, 2005–08; vice president for strategic development, NASCAR, 2008–present

Family: Wife, Michele; daughter, Charlee (8); son, Hudson (6); son, Caleb (1)

As NASCAR’s vice president for strategic development, Nyquist plays a central role in guiding the company’s marketing and digital media plans. It’s a big job at a pivotal time in the company’s history. The boom that carried over into the new millennium went (slightly) bust in the late 2000s, when everything from the global economic downturn to concerns about competitive balance and the sport straying from its roots cost NASCAR much of its momentum. Regaining it has required a hybrid strategy that combines playing to the sport’s traditional strengths and overcoming long-perceived weaknesses. That’s where Nyquist comes in.

What NASCAR has deemed its “Industry Action Plan,” Nyquist calls “my baby in this process.” Much of the new approach to building audiences still focuses on the tried and true: capitalizing on the star power of its best drivers and on the long-established relationship between race teams and advertisers—an edge for NASCAR over team sports whose fans are historically resistant to seeing corporate logos on their favorite jerseys. “We long ago crossed that point,” says Nyquist. “The engagement of corporate partners is seen in a positive light by our fan base. They understand that sponsors help support our sport.”

Other initiatives—such as appealing to younger, more urban, and more diverse audiences—provide Nyquist with a stiffer test. One of his most ambitious efforts was accomplished earlier this year when NASCAR bought back its own digital rights from Turner Broadcasting, which had paid to produce content for the racing league’s website and to sell ads based on that content. This deal, although profitable, created conflicts among some advertisers. In order to better oversee NASCAR’s marketing potential, Nyquist and his colleagues assembled a staff of nearly 80 people who are dedicated to controlling the digital presence. “It’s a huge change for us,” he says. “It allows us to be smarter about reaching demographics that will help our sport grow.”

In January 2013 NASCAR partnered with Hewlett-Packard to create a Fan and Media Engagement Center—a 13-screen glass room at NASCAR Plaza in Charlotte, North Carolina, that allows NASCAR to monitor media coverage and track social media conversations in real-time during races. Five staff members deliver the information they glean to team PR reps, sponsors, and even the drivers, and this monitoring also allows the sanctioning and governing body to respond quickly to any inaccurate reports.

NASCAR had already broken new-media ground in 2012 by becoming the first sports league to partner with Twitter for a race-specific social media presence. Twitter built a bare-bones page intended for users new to the platform, and the race itself was renamed the Pocono 400 Presented by #NASCAR. Add to that other necessary 21st century fan experience accessories, like the RaceView second-screen technology that gives viewers a video game perspective on live races, and Nyquist feels NASCAR has taken the digital media lead among professional sports.

Daytona-beach-race-circa-1940.jpgBut the NASCAR Green program might be Nyquist’s biggest challenge—not just by making the sport more environmentally friendly, but by convincing people that NASCAR is serious about it. The organization has implemented a massive tree-planting initiative at some of its tracks to offset its carbon output; it runs the largest recycling programs in sports (recycling all trash from NASCAR events, as well as all fluids used in their garages); and it requires its race teams to use ethanol-based fuels. There are also key changes at the tracks NASCAR uses, like the huge solar farm at Pocono Raceway in northeast Pennsylvania that produces more energy than the facility can use each year. “Five years ago, we were probably at the back of the pack compared with other sports,” says Nyquist, who also oversaw a NASCAR partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now I think we’ve become the example that other leagues are striving to follow.”

In all of this, Nyquist gives the impression that he enjoys defying perceptions—not only about the career possibilities of a small-town Minnesota kid from a tiny liberal arts college, but about NASCAR itself. It takes someone from a place like Carleton, where unconventional thinking and smart solutions are celebrated, to get environmentalists on board with auto racing. “In that sense, my job is very Carleton-esque,” says Nyquist. “We’re really reinventing ourselves, and I’m terribly proud of what we’ve done.”

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NASCAR Timeline

Iconic-Bill-France-Sr-portrait-at-Daytona-Internationa-Speedway.jpgThe roots of stock car racing date to Prohibition-era bootleggers, who used tricked-out sedans to move illicit booze and outrun the law in southern Appalachia. Nearly a century later, NASCAR is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise with a global audience. Here is the sport's road to success.

  • 1936: Bill France, a mechanic and amateur racer living in Daytona Beach, Florida, enters what is considered the first stock car race. He finishes fifth.
  • 1948: After a decade spent overseeing the Daytona race, France decides stock car racing needs an organizing body that will promote the sport and guarantee drivers get paid. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing is formed that winter. Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, who inspired the film Cannonball Run, is NASCAR’s first commissioner.
  • 1959: In a finish so close it takes three days of reviewing newsreel footage to determine the winner, Lee Petty edges Johnny Beauchamp in the first Daytona 500. Petty’s son, Richard, would go on to win NASCAR’s biggest race a record seven times.
  • 1979-Daytona-500-fight-Cale-Yarborough-Donnie-Allison.jpg1979: The 20th Daytona 500 is the first to be broadcast live on national television from start to finish, and what timing: Richard Petty pulls out a last-second win, while drivers Cale Yarborough and brothers Donnie Allison and Bobby Allison get into a track-side fistfight after a last-lap crash. NASCAR’s popularity booms in its wake, and it remains arguably the most important race in the sport’s history.
  • 1994: The Brickyard 400 brings stock car racing to America’s most famous track. NASCAR’s first-ever race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway draws a record crowd of more than 250,000 spectators.
  • 1999: Not long after celebrating its 50th anniversary, NASCAR signs broadcast deals with NBC, Fox, and Turner Sports.
  • 2001: Dale Earnhardt, who tied Petty with seven NASCAR championships, died from injuries suffered in a last-lap crash at Daytona.
  • 2010: The NASCAR Hall of Fame opens in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Ryan Jones is senior editor of the Penn Stater, the alumni magazine of Penn State University.

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