As Nascar prepared to drop the green flag on the 2021 season, Fox Sports found it had more stories to tease than it knew what to do with.
Fox Sports’ new campaign kicks off with a 60-second spot that’s chock full of Easter eggs placed intentionally to get fans excited about the new season and to get non-fans curious about what all is going on with Nascar. The campaign launched first in NFL playoff games two weeks ago and continued into Sunday’s NFL’s NFC Championship game. Both spots above and below are directed by Joseph Kahn.
Adding personality to the campaign and helping to tell its overarching story is voiceover narration provided by actor Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy), who happens to be a Nascar fan.
“His agent and rep is someone we deal with quite a bit so there was good shorthand between us,” said Bill Battin, senior vice president, on-air promotion, Fox Sports. “We didn’t know he was a fan when we started talking but he’s a big Nascar guy so he was very fired up on it. He definitely added a good bit of attitude and a cool factor.”
When it came to deciding what story to tell, the team ultimately decided to tell all of them. As the season progresses, the marketing will start to focus one on storyline or another.
“There was no one single thing you could put your finger on,” said Blake Danforth, vice president, marketing, Fox Sports. “We had a great story with Michael Jordan and Bubba Wallace coming on with a new team; Nascar finally got the young champ Chase Elliott stepped to the podium at the end of last season; Denny Hamlin has won back to back Daytona 500s and is going for this third. And we have new tracks, including a dirt track in Tennessee and a road track in Austin. We thought, ’this is crazy, there’s so much good stuff, we have to figure out how to get it all in here.’”
Just to bring non-fans up to speed, let’s review: Michael Jordan (yes, that Michael Jordan) is entering Nascar competition with new team 23XI, which he co-owns with Hamlin. Bubba Wallace is the team’s driver.
Elliott, 25, has been a star since he stepped on to the Nascar scene, but last year was the first that he won a Nascar Cup Championship.
Hamlin, who drives a souped-up Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing, is going for his third straight win at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14.
And Nascar, which is looking to expand its fan base, is adding road and dirt tracks while working to increase its international presence in Europe, Mexico, Canada and other territories.
All of that doesn’t even include the fact that Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer will sit together in the commentator’s box this season, playing off their now legendary on-track feud that started in Phoenix in 2012 when Gordon purposely crashed his car into Bowyer’s and both drivers’ pit crews got into it. The two will share the commentator’s booth for the first time and they’ll be joined by play-by-play man Mike Joy.
“Jeff was instrumental in getting Clint in that position,” said Erik Arneson, vice president, media relations, Fox Sports. “Jeff loves Clint’s comedy and their chemistry as a team.”
“They love to get under each other’s skin,” agreed Danforth. “It’s hilarious.
Pulling off such an ambitious campaign during the pandemic proved challenging—whether the team was considering logistics, travel, crew, or just managing safety around Covid-19. For example, the above spot was initially going to take place in a parking garage, with Gordon and Bowyer fighting over a parking spot. But with the forecast calling for 100% rain and snow, they had to think fast, move the shoot indoors on the fly and rewrite the whole thing the night before, said Danforth.
While the spots feature several locations, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, and Bristol Motor Speedway in Nashville, all of the live action that was shot took place in Charlotte.
“I think we knew all along the best place to pull this off would be Charlotte,” said Danforth. “They have the speedway, a dirt track and it’s home to a lot of drivers.”
Although staying in one place made things a little easier, Fox Sports still required a team of more than 100 people on the ground to simultaneously run three separate productions—the main campaign, interviews for in-season content and a public relations/print shoot to gather stills. And they had to fit all of it into three days rather than the four for which they had initially planned.
In addition, everyone involved with the shoot had to get tested every 48 hours, wear masks and stay socially distanced from one another, with each of the three teams staying completely separate from the other two. All of that required a great deal of upfront planning as well as bringing in an entire Covid safety team, testing center and Covid compliance officers, which increased the production budget by 20 to 30%.
Where the shoot took place was just one part of the overall project, with people all over the world working on the campaign, including Fox Sports’ team in Los Angeles, editors in Portland, Ore., creative leads in New York and Charlotte; and visual effects produced by La Huella in Madrid, Spain.
“Using Zooms and Evercast, we could all be on set together,” said Danforth. “We watched this thing together in real time and it was really cool how everyone was on the same page.”
“That was the most insane part of the whole thing,” said Battin. “Normally we would be meeting with the production company and the director in person. We would all fly to the location and be on the ground there. Not being able to do that presented a lot of challenges.”
Once all of the live-action was captured, everything had to be edited and completed in post production, and that included extensive visual effects such as adding in crowds and putting Nascar cars on tracks that had never seen them before, such as Austin’s COTA.
“If we could have used stock footage to save time and the visual effects we would have, but there were specific angles we wanted and there are no cameras on tracks any more to get shots like that,” Battin said.
Going forward, Battin said he thinks the way Fox Sports handles big shoots like this will be forever changed: “I think it won’t be 10 people from the team going down to the race like we used to do—it will be a bit of a hybrid. Being on the ground there’s a lot more opportunity for creativity, like if the director wants to ask us something, it’s a lot more efficient to have the right person there on set. Still, we were stunned that we did what we did and that it turned out the way that it did.”
The race for the Nascar Cup Championship returns Feb. 14 as Denny Hamlin goes for third straight win at the Daytona 500.