NASCAR Chief Digital Officer Tim Clark on Racing for the Next-Gen Fan
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Racing For the Next-Gen Fan
Today on the Future of Fandom, ride along as one motorsports brand races ahead in the digital landscape. Our specific focus on this episode is to learn how NASCAR is building a next-generation fan experience. In particular, you’ll hear from Tim Clark, NASCAR’s Chief Digital Officer.
You might not know it, but NASCAR was the first sport to return to the airwaves following COVID’s initial rise, due primarily to its virtual savvy and realism. Since then, the sport has only expanded its digital footprint, and today we explore how it’s evolving side-by-side with the sport’s on-track product.
We also expand on the importance of personality in motorsports, something which any fan of F1 will appreciate, plus how brands get involved given how sponsor-forward NASCAR is in all aspects of its existence.
Tim’s on the front row of it all, and I’m happy he could make a pit stop here with us. So let’s put you in the passenger seat as we predict the future with NASCAR and Tim Clark.
Connect with Tim Clark on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/timclark3/
Read more about NASCAR: https://www.nascar.com/
Here’s a quick sneak peek of this week’s episode:
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Adam Conner (00:09):
Today on The Future of Fandom, ride along as one motorsports brand races ahead in the digital landscape. My name’s Adam Conner, I’m your host, and our specific focus on this episode is how NASCAR is building a next generation fan experience. In particular, you’ll hear from Tim Clark, who is their Chief Digital Officer. You might not know it, but NASCAR was the first sport to return to the airwaves following COVID’s initial rise due primarily to its virtual savvy and realism. Since then, the sport has only expanded its digital footprint. And today we explore how it’s evolving side by side with the sports on track product.
Adam Conner (00:52):
We also expand on the importance of personality in building Motorsports Community, something which any fan of F1 will appreciate. Plus how brands get evolved given how sponsor forward NASCAR is in all aspects of its existence. Tim’s on the front row of it all, and I’m happy that he could make a pit stop here with us. So let’s put you in the passenger seat as we predict the future with NASCAR and Tim Clark. Tim, it’s a true honor to chat with you for the podcast. How you doing?
Tim Clark (01:29):
I’m good, Adam. I appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with you and appreciate having me on.
Adam Conner (01:35):
As a lifelong diehard of this sport, the first thing I want to say before I ask any question about the business is thanks for leading the charge because it’s been through so many different stages of its life in the time since I’ve started watching, which was about 1997, for those listening at home, and plenty of things have occurred. I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet a couple folks within the sport, I’ve gotten a few moments where I’ve been unable to speak when I’ve been walking next to drivers in pit lanes over the years. So for allowing me to do this eloquently here in a produced environment, I appreciate it. So thank you first for all your contributions to the sport.
Tim Clark (02:18):
My pleasure. I grew up a fan of the sport as well. Have been going to races for about as long as I can remember. So it’s been a really exciting experience to turn something like that into a career. And to your point, I don’t know too many sports, if any, that have the passionate fan base that we are lucky enough to have.
Adam Conner (02:39):
What was your first race? Can I start there?
Tim Clark (02:43):
So I’ve thought about this. I can’t recall the year, probably because it was before I was cognizant of what year it was, but I grew up not too far from what was then Richmond International Raceway, which is now Richmond Raceway. And my dad was a police officer in that county. And so in those days, there was no way you could buy a ticket to go to those races, you had to know someone. So it was me tagging along from as far back as I could remember in the 80s to attend every race I could at Richmond Raceway.
Adam Conner (03:17):
Richmond is also the track closest to me, although that was not the first one I went to, I went to… First one I went to was Dover. I don’t think, so it was 2001, but it wasn’t the one that Junior won at and flew the flag. That was awesome. That was a great moment. I think it was the Bush race at that point. I think I went on a Saturday because my dad had work like early Monday morning. So we went to the Saturday race, but wonderful experience. Anybody listening to this who are already, or were already off the rails, if you have not been to a NASCAR race, you got to try it. You got to try it once just because it’s for the untrained eye and ear, it’s going to be a crazy sensory spectacle. And then obviously if you’re a fan, you’ll know and love it and you’ll know what you’re getting into.
Adam Conner (03:56):
But Tim today, your role at NASCAR being chief digital officer means that you are working on a lot of the things which aren’t necessarily on the track at any given time. So let me begin with the combination of the two that I think we most clearly saw, of course, in 2020. My personal experience with the sport from a digital side began in 1999 when I got NASCAR 99 for the N64 and one of my dad’s brother’s houses, I think I tried NASCAR Racing 3, which was the precursor to the great PC line of games, that Papayas games did in the early 2000s.
Adam Conner (04:35):
Those were the ways in which I interacted with the sport was through games, but that has developed wildly through today across all your social presences, but it seemed like we got back to the games in 2020, the sport was the first of any major sport to return to some semblance of competition, through iRacing, which shift listeners don’t know is the premiere eSport for NASCAR, officially sanctioned by NASCAR. And that was pretty much forced on us all, of course, because of the pandemic. And I think you guys did wonderfully well putting the experience together and having it be as close as possible to the real life thing. I’d just be curious to learn first from you what that was like to go digital first, immediately, right at the beginning of a season.
Tim Clark (05:22):
I think it’s a good combination of lucky and good Adam. So I think, the lucky thing for us in particular is having a partner like iRacing, and I think to a lot of maybe new fans or casual fans or viewers that saw iRacing in early 2020, I think they maybe were under the impression that that came together very quickly. It actually was the manifestation of a, of a partnership that has been in existence to some degree for more than a decade. To your point, iRacing is the, they don’t like it when you call it a game, they get really offended and rightfully so because it is a simulation, it’s incredibly lifelike to the point where it is able to straddle the line of being kind of an eSports gaming type of environment, as well as a training vehicle for some of our drivers.
Tim Clark (06:17):
And so having that partnership and having our drivers aware of it and familiar with it, and in many cases, active on that platform, became one of those things that as the conversations were happening in real time of having to suspend the real life on track action, as the pandemic set in, those conversations were also happening of, we’ve got a virtual environment that exists, it could be something that we want to turn to, at the time, not knowing how long the kind of “real life” delay would happen.
Tim Clark (06:52):
So being able to pivot into the virtual environment and into iRacing and then having a broadcast partner that was agreeable enough to put that on television, within eight days of us suspending the season was pretty remarkable. And honestly, I think if you look back on it, one of those things that I think we moved so quickly that we didn’t even have time to overthink it, which sometimes we have a tendency to do, but it moves so quickly and everyone was so aligned to it from the very beginning, we were able to put together something that, I think was truly special.
Adam Conner (07:29):
I didn’t mean to misspeak there and call it a game myself, being a customer of iRacing various points since 2011, it is. And only ever having been in a real car like one time at a short track, it’s an incredibly lifelike experience. And it’s amazing eight days at that turnaround. And like, thank God that Fox at that point was willing to do something because I think it was also really important to get back to something and to be first was especially powerful in my mind. From that time, what do you think is going to stick? And if not the half a season of iRacing on Fox, instead of real racing, of course, that’s not going to happen. What elements of that eight day transition and the playbook you wrote will remain as future seasons play out?
Tim Clark (08:26):
So I think there are a couple of things, and I’ll focus your question on two. One of them is on the driver’s side and one of them is on the kind of engagement of audience side. On the driver’s side, I think one of the things, if not the biggest thing that made that such a success back in 2020 was the fact that it gave the drivers and opportunity to really showcase their personalities where they weren’t wearing helmets, they weren’t strapped into a race bar with protective equipment, they were, in most cases, had a camera on them and in most cases were mic’d up and their audio was being brought through on the broadcast.
Tim Clark (09:11):
So, I think for, not only existing fans that were tuning in, but certainly for new fans to kind of get exposed to the sport that way, where our drivers had that unique platform to really show off their personalities and who they are, and in many cases, their families or their kids or their pets being part of it, I mean, it was such a unique opportunity that I think it allowed us to maybe carry that through. So you know this from being a fan, but we bring through in-car cameras and we bring through in-car scanner audio, so that you’ve got that experience when we resumed real racing, I think there was some carry through from fans that had been exposed to it for the first time.
Tim Clark (09:52):
So I think that’s certainly a big piece of the continuation. I think the other one though is, I think that, perhaps the NASCAR fan of 2022 was introduced to the sport for the first time through iRacing, but I think a NASCAR driver of 2029 could have been introduced to NASCAR of the first time through iRacing as well.
Tim Clark (10:18):
The fact that we’ve got this eSports platform and this partnership with iRacing is incredibly unique, we’ve made the point before of you don’t get to refine your skills as a potential NFL quarterback by playing Madden, but you do potentially have that opportunity to get accustomed to the sport of auto racing by way of iRacing. So I think the opportunities for development of fans is certainly evident, but I also think it’s a really interesting way for us to consider the next evolution of drivers.
Adam Conner (10:53):
Well, that’s for sure. And listeners who are unfamiliar with the sport, we have seen that play out a time or two where today’s drivers began in these virtual digital environments, very close to real life in terms of the product, but that’s where they cut their teeth. I think it’s an interesting insight that you point out that the fan of ’22 may have been introduced through that simulation or recently through its explosion into what was a forced mainstream. And all day at the sport, you’re not just thinking about what we’re doing with iRacing, you’re talking about the entire digital landscape of what NASCAR brings to the table.
Adam Conner (11:31):
And I know that beginning with next season, we’re going to be looking at a new car. We’re going to new tracks. That’s going to continue to evolve as it always does. How will the digital experience evolve right alongside it? What other things are you putting together to thrill and wow the fan of ’22 who you hope remains a fan for life?
Tim Clark (11:54):
Right. So to your point, the next gen car will make its on track debut in ’22. And it’s a huge pivotal transformational moment in time for the sport and one that I think we’re all extremely excited about. Obviously that puts the onus on us to create a second screen, a fan engagement experience that’s befitting of that car. What I would tell you, preemptively, going into the ’22 season is I’m not going to get it right, we’re not going to get that experience right out of the gate. And I think we almost have to be okay with that. And the reason I say that is, we’re going to build this experience around a car that’s never been driven before in competition, and we’re going to make some assumptions based on what our fans have traditionally wanted and what we’re able to do with the data that is available off of this car that hasn’t been in previous iterations of a NASCAR race car.
Tim Clark (12:56):
But what is really going to dictate what that experience should look like is what the engagement around the new car and the new race formats, what that looks like in ’22. And I think what is, it’s certainly important that we get out of the gate strong in ’22 with our fan experience, but I would argue that it’s even more important for us to be adaptable to what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing from the fans in ’22 to evolve throughout the course of that season and then certainly get it, not perfect, but certainly closer to perfect in ’23, because it’s an ongoing process. It’s an ongoing evolution of, how do you take a sport that has upwards of 40 cars going nearly 200 miles an hour on a track thousands of miles away and create a second screen experience around that?
Tim Clark (13:47):
The blessing of all of those data points and camera angles and audio streams, and then the curse of trying to take all of that data and all of that information and consolidate it into a fan experience that’s not completely overwhelming, especially for a new fan who’s using that as kind of an educational opportunity. So I think that we’re excited about ’22, but I think we’ll be even better in ’23.
Adam Conner (14:15):
And I’ll be waiting on abated breath as a fan to see how that ultimately manifests. But it’s an important thing that you bring up because we race all over the US for now, for the sport, which means that most times, yes, the event is happening thousands of miles away. And yet the mandate to have a robust digital experience remains of high importance, and I think will continue to grow. Similar to another global motor sport, which is definitely global in F1. If you’re a US fan that watches that, you get to see the action very, very rarely even in North America. And yet they have managed to put together an environment through which the sport can be broadly enjoyed. I know you’re well aware of that.
Adam Conner (15:08):
They also do a lot of work to make sure that people know the drivers as people and the teams. I wonder what, if any, page you look at that book and borrow for the way that NASCAR moving forward attempts to attract a similarly global audience?
Tim Clark (15:28):
Look, I think we are all kind of number one fans of F1 and number two students of F1. And for that matter, every other sport and Motorsport, I think, I’ve spent the better part of my career working in sports. And I think there’s a misconception that leagues and teams and sports are competing with one another. And look, to a certain extent, I think that’s probably fair right, in that sports fans are generally fans of multiple sports. And so you’re looking for more eyeballs and more engagement, but I would say specifically with something like F1, we look at the excitement level and engagement with fans and consumers around Motorsports is very much a positive thing for everyone.
Tim Clark (16:17):
I think they’ve had a very exciting season, and obviously have a lot of star power.
“One thing that stands out in particular with F1 is what they’ve done with their Netflix show, Drive to Survive. It’s a very entertaining show on a major streaming platform. But I think the key to the success of that show has been personalities and its team principles, its crew members, its drivers. I mean, it’s throughout the paddock where you really expose some of these personalities and given people, especially casual fans are reason to tune in and follow those broadcasts and follow this season.”
— Tim Clark (16:20)
Tim Clark (16:56):
I don’t think it’s incredibly unique in terms of follow docs and content and behind the scenes type of executions have happened with other sports and with other league properties. But I think what they have done over the last few years with that show in particular and the evolution that it’s had on fan engagement specifically domestically has been really impressive to see. And certainly something we’ve got a big focus on as well.
Adam Conner (17:25):
Well, once again, let me say, I look forward to seeing that because the drivers have a huge impact on the fans’ perception of the sport, so much or perhaps even more so than any given change that NASCAR as a governing body brings to light. And speaking to those personalities and what they do on and off the track, in this case, mostly on, we’ve seen them diversify even the types of Motorsport that they get themselves involved in. All the way from Daytona down to the dirt tracks, I’m curious how you, as the holder of the digital experience, the flagship experience going forward, how does that flow from the national scene all the way down to the local tracks that race on Tuesdays and Wednesdays?
Tim Clark (18:12):
Well, it’s interesting that you use the word flow, Adam, a partnership that we recently announced was with FloRacing and that partnership was specifically designed to increase the exposure of some of those non-national series, NASCAR events and tracks and races on a platform like FloRacing that is distributed widely and has a big investment behind it. Again, back to what we talked about with F1, I think we’re firm believers that the passion and the fandom around Motorsports in the US is good for everyone. The rising tide lifts all boats analogy. Especially for us where we’ve got drivers like Kyle Larson, who has a dominant championship season and then is on Tuesday or Wednesday racing in California and the next week racing in Iowa, there’s no sport quite like that where you could take a champion caliber driver and have those drivers race in other forms of Motorsports or in other series, or completely different vehicles just a few days later.
Tim Clark (19:29):
So I think we’re incredibly passionate about that. And I think for, specifically on the media side or on the digital side, we’re looking for partnerships like the one with Flo or like the one we created a few years ago with SPEED SPORT to put content behind that and amplify it, put it on a bigger stage to kind of be authentic and how we’re telling those stories and how we’re creating those opportunities for fans to be exposed to Motorsports in general, and not just kind of the NASCAR national series content, that’s kind of our crown jewel.
Adam Conner (20:03):
I have to admit, I do get into some of those non-national series from time to time. Admittedly, at this point, it happens closer to February every year, just because I’m psyched about Daytona in the beginning of the cup series events. But I do think that there is room for my fandom to grow there. And certainly that extends to the fandom of Motorsport across the US and abroad when it comes to the depth of the experience and the consumption. Speaking to the depth that goes into putting these sorts of environments and experiences together, I do want to ask a question that is less driver and fan centric and more business centric, just because NASCAR is, in my opinion, probably the sport which is most intertwined with the brands with which it partners. Sponsors are inextricably linked in some cases with teams and drivers and car numbers and even colors over time, though their logos may change, the memories do not.
Adam Conner (21:00):
And so I’m curious as, again, the person who curates the digital environments, where things are always changing, but where brands consistently asking for more, how do you thoughtfully include the brands that sponsor and pony up crazy amounts of money to the sport and to drivers and teams? How do you include them in the digital environment and how do you expect that to evolve over time as well?
Tim Clark (21:22):
I think there’s two words that I come back to on the sponsorship front in our sport and that’s authentic and honest. And the reason I use those two is because I think in a, and this goes beyond sports across all of media, I think consumers are just conditioned now to be accepting of advertising and marketing. That messaging and that promotion is intertwined in almost anything that you do on a day to day basis. I think the authentic and honest relationship that our sponsors have within the sport is that our fans are able to understand how those brands are supportive of their favorites.
Tim Clark (22:05):
So if you see Kevin Harvick going faster and competitive and winning races and his car is branded with subway, I think you, as a fan and the consumer understand that that brand is something that is helping that, that is making an investment in that driver and that team to allow them to be competitive. And I think you see that across the drivers and teams in our sport. I think as you have that kind of honest dialogue between fans and consumers and brands, it allows that activation on digital platforms to be a whole lot easier because now I think you’ve got a reason to integrate that subway ad into an article or social media post or a video featuring Kevin Harvick.
Tim Clark (22:52):
So you can pull that brand through and activate it in such a way that it really feels authentic. And I think there are examples like that across the board. Root Insurance and Bubba Wallace is a relationship that comes to mind that came about based on Bubba’s involvement in some social justice issues last year. And there are so many examples of these brand and consumer relationships through teams and drivers that have existed for years and years.
Tim Clark (23:23):
And Denny Hamlin is now synonymous with the number 11 FedEx car. And that’s because of the investment that FedEx has made and making that team more successful and making Denny as competitive and as great of a driver as he is. So when it comes time to integrate that brand into digital or social content, it’s a much more authentic, I think, dialogue with those fans. I think they’re conditioned to understand how that works.
Adam Conner (23:54):
Got to ask, since we are in the run up to the beginning of next season, what are you most looking forward to and what should fans look the most forward to?
“We’re going to make a big swing the start of next season. So traditionally, the season starts in Daytona, you’ve got the clash and you’ve got the duals, and then you’ve got Daytona 500 qualifying. And then obviously the Daytona 500, and that all happens in early to mid-February and the season, it’s kind of off and running from there, which is the birthplace of the sport. And instead, what we’re going to do next year is we’re going to build a track inside of the LA Coliseum and run that the Sunday before the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, which is every bit as big and undertaking as it sounds.”
— Tim Clark (24:04)
Tim Clark (24:42):
So this is not something that has been done before, it’s not something that there’s much of a blueprint for. And then, oh, by the way, the cars that we’ll bring to that track to run that event will be the next gen cars that have never run competitively in an organized race before. So to say that we’re going to get out of the gate with a lot of new and big changes is probably an understatement, but we’re incredibly excited about it. If you go back to what we talked about a few minutes ago, the experience of attending a NASCAR race in person is so unique, and it’s so thrilling, and it’s such a sensory overload. I think we realize that that is the ultimate unlock for fan engagement in our sport.
Tim Clark (25:30):
But I think we need to look for opportunities to take that experience to the fans as opposed to enticing them to come to us. So I think we feel like looking at markets like Los Angeles and Chicago and New York as places that we can hold events like this, even if they are exhibition races like the race that we’ll have at the LA Coliseum, it’s high on our list of things to do, so we’re excited to kick off that way.
Adam Conner (25:58):
If we have any listeners in the LA area, I would highly highly recommend that because, and this is the host’s bias here, the short track experience, as I’m sure that you saw Tim with your first race at Richmond is really, really, really different from the high banks of Daytona, simply because in my mind, just because of how loud it is, but also just because of how close everything is. And you LA residents, even if you didn’t see the last racing event in the Coliseum, which was all the way back in 2013 with a bunch of trucks, which was from a series founded by a former NASCAR driver, it should be noted. This is an interesting way to dip your toes into the sport, of course, right before the marquee event to kick off the season.
Adam Conner (26:42):
But for telling me a little bit more about what to expect next year broadly, especially in that digital landscape and given me a preview as to what might come after next season, Tim Clark, a genuine honor to have you from a lifelong fan. Thank you and appreciate you coming on the show.
Tim Clark (26:55):
Adam, really appreciate it, excited to put a bow on ’21 and really excited to start the ’22 season. So appreciate the opportunity to spend some time together and talk about that.
Adam Conner (27:10):
Thanks again to Tim Clark from NASCAR for joining us. As a lifelong fan myself, I look forward to seeing that digital evolution in real time. And thanks to you, the listener for exploring the future of fandom with us, I’d encourage you to stay connected. So subscribe to The Future of Fandom, wherever you listen to your podcasts, or you can also find all our content at livelike.com. Across socials, we’re also on LinkedIn @LiveLike, and Twitter @LiveLikeInc. I look forward to predicting the future again with you real soon. Until then I’m Adam Conner saying so long, and thanks for being a fan.
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