Sports biz: Track man

Ron Schneider keeps a jet-black Porsche and a BMW M5 in a pristine garage behind his company’s Englewood office, but it’s his 1968 Plymouth Roadrunner, bathed in burgundy paint and looking every bit like the muscle car Schneider cruised around in as an Illinois teenager, that tells you what you need to know: He’s a car guy.

Schneider fell in love early. He grew up on a farm that doubled as a hangout for local hot rodders and tore around the tracks 20 years ago on regional Sports Car Club of America circuits until 1987, when he stopped racing cars and started selling them. Sort of.

The B.F. Goodrich Tire Co. had started a new unit devoted to racing enthusiasts and named Schneider to lead the group’s marketing efforts. In a whirlwind, Schneider was immersed into the world of motorsports promotion – car decals, sanctioning bodies, driver endorsements, corporate sponsors.

It seemed like an odd fit on paper. Schneider was a mechanical engineer who had been working on a new breed of racing tire for B.F. Goodrich. But he liked what he saw in this new world where race cars and corporate money intersected. In a succession of jobs that included running the marketing operations for the Sports Car Club of America, Schneider came to understand that racing was fueled as much by sponsorships as high-octane gasoline.

He also observed an unusual kinship between racing fans and sponsors. More so than in other sports, it seemed that stock car loyalists maintained a personal affinity for the companies that plastered logos on the cars driven by their favorite drivers. If Budweiser is covering the bills for Kasey Kahne’s pit crew, goes the theory, then there’s no question what fans of the popular NASCAR driver will be drinking.

Schneider started his own motorsports marketing company in 1995. He planted it in Colorado, far removed from the epicenter of the racing business in Charlotte, N.C. But Schneider and his family had visited Colorado and decided to stay. Today, Schneider’s Sport Dimensions maintains an eight-person staff and operates from a nondescript suburban office strip. But it’s well-known in the NASCAR business community for putting together marketing deals involving big corporate sponsors like Shell Oil Co. and hotel operator Best Western International Inc. They rely on Sport Dimensions to figure out the nuances of pairing corporate brands with the phenomenon that is NASCAR, which counts 75 million people as fans and accounts for 17 of the 20 most-attended live sports events in the U.S. annually.

To stand out, Schneider and team do a lot more than paste decals on drivers’ suits and cars. The mantra at Sport Dimensions is “activation,” which refers to an omnibus focus on getting fans, employees and vendors actively engaged with the brands Schneider represents.

It can mean leading fans to register at sponsor websites for sweepstakes and prize giveaways, or grabbing extra attention at race events.

Sport Dimensions managed to do both when it invented a stunt called the Pennzoil Victory Challenge at the May NASCAR All Star Week event in Charlotte. Sport Dimensions worked with NASCAR officials to get seven top drivers to show off their best “burn-out” moves – the post-victory celebrations in which drivers squeal their tires all over the track, emitting grand plumes of smoke.

Football star Randy Moss and actor Kevin Costner were part of a judging team that gave the promotion some celebrity appeal. The cable TV network Speed televised the event live, and Schneider’s shop developed an online sweepstakes element that gave one disbelieving NASCAR fan the chance to put on a suit and ride shotgun with Pennzoil driver Kevin Harvick. Who, of course, won the thing.

“It’s about being unique,” says Schneider, who says he still feels an adrenalin rush at the track. Schneider says his business is running strong even in an economic environment that has caused some venerable NASCAR sponsors to back out from supporting drivers and teams. As long as the activation levels stay high, Schneider figures the return on investment for a NASCAR sponsorship beats traditional media options. And helps fuel his company’s growth. 
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