In a pandemic-crippled marketplace, learning how to market outside of the box can be the difference between success and failure. Forward-thinking marketing strategist/drag racer Alex Laughlin believes his decision to focus on using an influencer, social media-based marketing platform has made the difference in his survival in the rough and tumble world of drag racing sponsorship.
“There’s no doubt about it that it has worked in our favor, especially with everybody being at home for so long,” Laughlin said. And anything that you could do to be on social media because everybody’s at home looking at their phones, right? And hell, so many people still are. From state to state and how all of the regulations differ, there’s still plenty of places that people are not back in the office. They aren’t back at work, especially people in the service industry in many other cities and states. They’re still just kicking it.
“It’s been really good for me to be able to continue to push content. And even though we weren’t necessarily drag racing, I was still doing anything that I could, whether I started racing my side-by-side in an off-road series and just trying to stay in front of people and relevant with my sponsor branding and just anything that I could do. And it helps.”
In a sense, Laughlin found himself racing in the downtime, but not going through the gearbox of his Havoline-sponsored Camaro.
“There’s no doubt that the majority of my following/fan base are into drag racing,” Laughlin explained. “But people that like racing typically like most kinds of racing, especially people that follow me on social media or whatever. While they are more along the lines of diehard drag racers, some of these people do feel invested just in me as a person and so they’d like seeing some of the just other stuff that I do or have going on.”
Case in point, Laughlin documented his 28-hour foray into the world of Hot Wheels diecast car racing. He carefully scripted a race series of the 1/24th scale childhood toys, and it was more than intended to remain relevant but to also delve into the place where most of his fanbase developed their passion for cars.
“I wanted to be able to give people that are stuck at home something to not only watch and be entertained by, not only to watch something that they could go and do as well to kill some time and do something fun and that’s relatively inexpensive,” Laughlin admitted.
And in his explanation, Laughlin showcased what being a social media influencer is all about.
“That’s something that anybody could do, right? And they could do it in their living room, they could do it down their stairs, in the garage, whatever,” Laughlin said. “Whether it’s something like that, or if it’s me just doing something weird.”
Laughlin even went as far as to create an alter-ego, one he refers to as “Albert.”
“Albert is just a weird dude with a blonde mullet and some American flag sunglasses,” Laughlin said. “And it turns out people liked him. So I’m just always trying to think of ways to be entertaining, whether it’s cool or whether it’s funny or whatever.”
Laughlin said he isn’t surprised the majority of drag racers haven’t followed his lead. He says a minority of drivers live and breathe by social media while others don’t, nor do they care to understand it. There’s a part of him that feels they should if only to help grow the sport in a world chock full of entertainment options.
“I don’t have people chasing sponsorships for me,” Laughlin said. “I don’t have anybody maintaining the relationships with my sponsors that I have. And so that’s just why I continue to push stuff out all the time.”
Laughlin believes the NHRA could do a better job of using its platform in an influential role.
“NHRA does a horrible job of trying to help the drivers and their followings,” Laughlin said point-blank. “And I think it’s ridiculous because the more people that follow their drivers, these people feel invested. They feel they have a favorite driver. Whenever they come to the races, they want to be able to really root for somebody and NHRA doesn’t do anything with trying to put up social media handles, whether it be on television or whether it be on the Sunoco Vision on the side of the race track.”
Laughlin said he’s not just pulling this idea out of thin air either. He said it was a trip to Texas Motor Speedway for a Formula Drift event several years ago, driving the point home.
“I’ve never really followed Formula Drift,” Laughlin explained. “I was there because I knew somebody. And these guys that drive drift cars have huge, huge followings. And what they’re doing is relatively inexpensive. It does take some skill, of course, but one thing that they were doing there at the race is in front of the people that are sitting there in the stands, every driver that comes up, it’s got their photo. Like NHRA does a lot of the times and it has their name, but then it also has their social media handle. Well, everybody that’s sitting there in the stands has their phone in their hand. They’re videoing, they’re Snapchatting, Instagramming, whatever it is.
“They see somebody pop up and think, I don’t know that dude but it looks like a cool guy. I like his car or whatever. It’s super easy to look them up, hit the follow button right there. Well, then that grows the entire Formula Drift network, right? So it’s bigger than just the name Formula Drift. It’s all of the people under it. And NHRA does not take advantage of social media at all, or their driver’s social media to be able to grow the sport.”
Laughlin did say the NHRA has reached out to the drivers to use their social media platforms to help grow the sport. However, he feels the road needs to run more than one way. He’s shared his idea with the race series but says he’s still waiting to see it put into motion.
“We live in a different world of marketing now where motorsports are so expensive to sponsor,” Laughlin said. “If you want to put your name on a Top Fuel car for one weekend for a competitive car, you’re going to spend $100,000. Well, what else can you do with that $100,000?”
In a sense, Laughlin believes NHRA and its key players are still living and marketing in archaic times. His viewpoint is if drag racing wants to reach a younger demographic, it had better get up to speed in a hurry. The racing landscape has changed a lot since many of those in power positions first got into racing.
“It has to do with the fact that drag racing and NASCAR back in the day were some of the only forms of racing. It’s very straightforward. You go in a circle or you go straight,” Laughlin said. “First one of the finish line wins. It’s very plain and simple. Well, now you’ve got off-road trucks that are flying through the air at over 100 miles an hour. You’ve got the drift cars, you’ve got Supercross, you’ve got all of these other forms, motorsports, that have a higher level of just bad-ass factor.
“We have to figure out how to make drag racing as cool as some of these other sports and get the younger people in. Because otherwise, and not to sound morbid, we’re all here for a short time. We all have a lifespan and the demographic of NHRA drag racing is up there. And in the great scheme of things, we’re not that far from phasing those people out. So then what? How are we going to captivate the younger audience and have them at the race track or is the sport just going to die when everybody else does?”
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