American Thunder Revs Up A NASCAR Print Marketplace
Which is exactly the way president and publisher Val Landi envisioned it. Although he was confident that fans would embrace a magazine that aspires to capture the NASCAR lifestyle, he wasn't about to let the circuit's biggest event pass without loudly--and smartly--announcing its presence.
"The idea was to become a major part of the scene," he says. "We want American Thunder to be a part of the NASCAR culture, and Daytona is ground zero for that."
Landi's enthusiastic, informal tone belies the amount of thought and money that went into the mag's inaugural Daytona 500. Upon arriving at the magazine on December 1, one of the first calls Landi made was to Momentum Worldwide, perhaps the premier event-marketing firm in the country. He wanted to establish a Daytona presence so exciting, so boisterous that attendees would flock to the mag's GetThunder.com Web site, and ideally, sign up for a subscription. In other words, he wanted to employ marketing techniques more often associated with packaged goods companies to quickly grow the magazine's readership base.
"It's a new acquisition model, and I think it works because it takes all the guesswork out of the equation," Landi notes. "Compare this to direct mail. If I send something to Car & Driver readers, I don't know that they're NASCAR fans. Everyone at Daytona is a NASCAR fan. It should give us huge visibility."
Of course, not every nascent publication can afford to invest in a Momentum program, but American Thunder is a child of privilege: it's backed by Clarium Capital Management, a global macro hedge fund led by Peter Thiel. Thiel, who did fairly well for himself when he sold PayPal to eBay, decided to take the road less traveled for tech millionaires and spend his jackpot on something other than a sports team. "He used to be involved in journalism when he was in college, so a media company was what he was thinking," Landi says. "And when everybody started looking for underserved markets, the NASCAR audience came up again and again."
This audience may once have been dismissed by advertisers without much thought, but the sport's explosion over the last decade has changed most minds. As opposed to the hackneyed image of a gun-loving yahoo motoring around in a pickup with a jawful of chew, NASCAR's national fan base skews only slightly male (41 percent of race attendees are women) and boasts a median household income of around $60,000. "This is why you see Tide and M&M's on the cars," Landi offers. In fact, the so-called "NASCAR dad" is considered the potential swing vote in the upcoming presidential election.
Thus, it was only natural that somebody would stumble upon the idea of a lifestyle magazine for this audience. "I think NASCAR defines a culture and mindset," Landi explains. "It's linked with other outside attributes and interests--whether country music or outdoor activities--more than just about any other sport." One promising sign: Landi walked out of Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters last month with a 3,000-store commitment based on the prototype alone.
While there are plenty of racing and auto publications, Landi doesn't think that any have struck a chord with advertisers. "The motor-sports publications--they don't provide the physical environment that major brands want," he says, plugging American Thunder's heavy paper stock and stylish design. "We're keeping an eye on them, but I don't really consider them competitors."
Instead, Landi views network television as his primary rival for ad dollars. "My 'elevator pitch' is that American Thunder will be the print alternative to network TV for major brands if they want to reach the NASCAR market," he continues. "But I'm guessing it's going to be hard to get money from Nextel." Nextel recently assumed title sponsorship of what has been known since 1971 as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, paying $750 million over the next 10 years for the privilege.
On the other hand, Landi is optimistic that other telecoms will seize upon American Thunder as a considerably less expensive way to reach the same audience: "There's no reason why we shouldn't become a print alternative for a lot of companies who want to get the NASCAR audience, but were beaten there by their competitors." Although the first issue is populated by names like Viagra, Sharp, Canon, and Wrangler, Landi believes the hard work is still to come (New York-based PSP Sports is the mag's rep firm). He lists Anheuser-Busch, Gillette, Verizon, Ford, and GM ("from Cadillacs through Chevy Trucks") as top targets for 2004.
As for the future, Landi expects American Thunder to spawn a handful of imitators. "Honestly, I think it's pretty inevitable, even if we don't do as well as we think we will," he shrugs. "The audience for this is that powerful." While its initial rate base sits at 100,000, the mag hopes to triple or even quadruple that sum by the start of 2005. "Fifty ad pages per issue is something to shoot for by the middle of the year," Landi adds.