At nearly 200 miles per hour on the race track, time can go by in a blur, and in many ways, it feels like yesterday that Coca-Cola was introducing its latest partnership with the help of a who’s who of NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers that included Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Jarrett.
In fact, it’s been 20 years since those legendary names were among the first drivers to be part of the inaugural Coca-Cola Racing Family, a groundbreaking and innovative partnership between Coke and NASCAR that has been going strong for two decades, with some of the hottest drivers in the sport showing their passion on and off the track to generations of fans.
“It’s quite an accomplishment,” said Ben Reiling, director, motor sports, Coca-Cola North America. “To have a platform that has lasted this long is impressive. It started 20 years ago and has maintained a distinct presence in NASCAR. Its longevity says a lot of about how it was formed, how it’s been managed and how it’s been a part of our strategy.”
The Coca-Cola Racing Family was first announced on the eve of the 1998 Daytona 500. While Coke has been part of NASCAR for more than 50 years, 1998 was the year in which Coke became an Official Partner of NASCAR and the Official Fan Refreshment of the sport. To mark the occasion, a unique idea was hatched to bring fans, drivers and their favorite soft drink together.
“We said, let’s get the fans who are passionate about NASCAR even closer,” recalled Beatriz Perez, who is now chief public affairs, communications and sustainability officer for The Coca-Cola Company but worked in brand marketing in 1998. “The NASCAR brand is very much about family, and Coca-Cola is very much about family. Let’s bring that together. We knew that fans identify with a driver. But if we only had one, we would not be able to really leverage fans of the sport. This was a non-traditional way of doing it."
Perez continued, “We were new, so we didn’t have the credibility. The France family (who founded NASCAR) was incredibly gracious. They walked us around and introduced us to every driver. They helped us have those conversations. We couldn’t have done this without their assistance.”
Originally, the idea was to have six drivers and call it the Coca-Cola Sixpack, but as the rosters grew and early marketing plans played on the family relationships with generational drivers like the Earnhardts and Jarretts, a new name was needed. Perez credits former employee Kathy Monroe, who passed away in 2016, with an idea that changed everything.
“She pulled me aside and said, ‘I love what you’re doing, but I don’t love the name. It’s not right,’” Perez said. “She said that we had the drivers and their families and kids in the program, and that really struck me. She was the one who literally said, ‘Give me 10 minutes,’ and then she handed to me a piece of paper that said ‘Coca-Cola Racing Family.’ There were a lot of people who worked on this, but Kathy gave us the breakthrough. We were all using the word ‘family,’ but she was the brilliant person who put it to paper.”
“It was very different and very unique,” recalled Ellen Lucey, who was director of sorts marketing for Coca-Cola during the early years of the Racing Family. “We weren’t sponsoring the whole car, so it afforded us to have a relationship with several people. Fans could look at it like, if their favorite was out, there was another Coca-Cola driver you could follow. It fit the brand as far as the heritage and tradition of the sport, and it fit the business need in that it was a great program for retail.”
Lucey remembered that the marketing materials were so popular with NASCAR fans that stand-up advertisements of drivers in stores began “walking off” with avid fans eager to have a little piece of their favorite racers.
“Everyone had an affinity for what we were doing,” Lucey said.
As the program matured, it continued to make an impact, drawing raves from fans and NASCAR in the way it functioned as a cohesive partnership. Coca-Cola is the only three-time winner of the NASCAR Marketing Achievement Award, and the drivers that join the family are excited about the chance to work with the brand.
One of the elements that has grown out of the partnership is the Chug for Charity competition, which began in 2002. It creates a unique competition among Coca-Cola Racing Family members, who earn “points” for various activities and consumption of Coke. The driver with the most points at the end of each segment earns a donation to the drivers preferred charity, and the driver with the largest donation at the end of the year is declared the Chug for Charity Champion.
“The drivers who are part of the program look at it as being an honor to be part of the group,” Reiling said. “There’s a lot of prestige that comes with it. To see Dale Jarrett, when he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, recognize the Coca-Cola Racing Family in his speech, that’s an appreciation we all have for the partnerships and relationships we’ve built over the years.”
Over the years, as the Coca-Cola Racing Family has grown, adding new drivers along the way, the core mission has remained the same – to connect NASCAR fans with their sport and enjoy a refreshing soft drink with family and friends.
“I’ve been able to race a few Coke cars the last few years, and it’s really cool to now be part of the family,” Larson said. “Coca-Cola is such an iconic brand, and I’m proud to be a part of their team.”
Coca-Cola Racing Family driver Joey Logano invites fans to
‘Share a Coke’ with him as he is introduced for the Coke Zero 400 Saturday,
July 5, 2014.
One of the ways the Coca-Cola Racing Family has truly connected with fans is showcasing the family in their element on the track and another side of their personalities outside of the car through different integrated marketing initiatives. From the early ads that focused on generations of Coke drivers to the hilarious “Road Trip” series, the commercials gave drivers the chance to shine in front of the camera.
This year’s commercial will give a nod to fans of the sport by showcasing how they support their favorite Coca-Cola Racing Family drivers. The spot entitled “Tailgating” will showcase how fans can enjoy an ice-cold Coke at the track or choose a Coke Zero Sugar while watching the race with friends, or share a Coca-Cola Life with someone special over the racing season. Each moment celebrates the many different reasons to reach for any delicious Coca-Cola.
“Tailgating” aired on FOX during Sunday's Daytona 500 broadcast.
The 20th anniversary of the Coca-Cola Racing Family builds on earlier announcement made in January where The Coca-Cola Company, through the first-of-its-kind deal, renewed a three-way agreement with NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation (ISC).
“We’ve had the privilege of working with some of the greatest personalities in the sport and the accomplishments we’ve made with the Coca-Cola Racing Family have been the result of so many people involved in the effort,” Reiling said. “Everything we do, every time we communicate, whether it’s point-of-sale, TV, radio, social or digital, comes back to resonating with the NASCAR fans through the Coca-Cola Racing Family.”
This year’s Coca-Cola Racing Family features some of NASCAR’s top drivers, including Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, Darrell Wallace Jr., Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson (pictured below). As usual, the group will be featured in advertising, promotions, packaging and as ambassadors for Coca-Cola.
What started as an out-of-the-box idea 20 years ago is now a staple for both Coca-Cola and NASCAR, and fans across the country have come to see Coke as the sport’s No. 1 sponsor.
“Aside from the Olympics, this is one of the longest-standing platforms that we do at Coke and it has worked really well,” Perez said. “It is one of my proudest moments. It feels like my baby. To have fans recognize that Coke is an integral part of the sport is a proud moment, and to see the program building on the successes of the past – that’s a hard thing to do. The Coke team, the NASCAR team and the driver team have found something that works, and they’ve made it even better.”