Giving Audience Growth the Green Flag
BY CHRISTOPHER ANKEY
PHOTO BY ETHAN PINES
Nicole Smith’s history in sports starts early. Her first job was Super Fan, and her dad hired her.
“Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, sports allowed me to bond with my dad,” says Smith, MBA ’11. “He was a big sports fan, so events like the Super Bowl were basically holidays in my house.”
But, it wasn’t until her time at Michigan Ross that she realized she wanted her future to be in sports, too.
“At business school, particularly at Ross, you really get encouraged and you have this perspective that you can make the experience anything you want,” she says. “So I asked myself, ‘If I could do anything, what would I want to do?’ The answer was sports.”
Smith now serves as director of growth segment marketing for NASCAR, working toward broadening the appeal of the beloved stock car racing brand that, she admits, isn’t really well understood across the country.
“One thing I think people don’t realize is that there’s so much innovation, intelligence, and engineering that goes into NASCAR and stock car racing as a sport,” Smith says. “A lot of that has to do with complex equations, innovations in fuel efficiency, speed, and the science of aerodynamics. These factors are at play every weekend at a NASCAR race, and understanding the science behind the sport really helps you enjoy it.”
And it’s not just on the track — lessons in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) can be seen everywhere from the garages to the maintenance pits.
“They’re making decisions about engineering, trying to make the cars faster, and dealing with all of these mechanisms that directly correlate to STEM topics,” she says. “This is such a smart sport, and I think we can own STEM in a way that other sports just can’t.”
It’s a fast-paced, science-based, real-life case study that lends itself to educational lesson plans — and that’s just what Smith is creating.
Smith has spent a lot of her time in her first year at NASCAR working to find opportunities to develop programs that target middle school youth. And leading a new partnership with Scholastic, she’s worked with her team to develop curriculum that will bring the lessons of NASCAR to middle school classrooms across the country.
“We’re focusing on the three D’s of speed: Drag. Downforce. Drafting,” she says. “It’s the science of aerodynamics, and we’re distributing lesson plans to teachers around the country so that even if students can’t get to their local science center, they can do these things and interact with these forces right there in the classroom.”
It’s called the NASCAR Acceleration Nation program, and when it launched in February, Smith called it her “pet project.”
“I have a background in marketing to kids,” she says, mentioning her several years working with Disney and a Ross MAP project with Make-A-Wish. “It’s really important, especially when targeting youth, that you have this type of altruistic value to your program. If you can get to a place where you’re providing value for kids and giving them something fun and entertaining that they can use or learn to enhance their life, I think we’ll be able to make some headway.”
And if you can do that at 189.078 miles per hour? Even better.