In Nascar, Lugz Sees Road From Street To Speedway

As Nascar looks to build upon its growing popularity and become an urban-market sport, brands with street creds are paralleling its efforts, hoping to get a piece of the racing market. The latest of these is Lugz, a street shoe that has built its reputation with endorsements by hip-hop artists Birdman and DJ Funkmaster Flex and is now out to gain exposure on Nascar speedways.

Lugz, which has signed 28-year-old Richard Childress Racing team driver Kevin Harvick to endorse its “Rally” shoe, is using its association with the team to reach a 25- to 35-year-old audience, along with its core, 18- to 25-year-old male target.

“The challenge of the niche player like us is how do you grow without losing your reason to be,” said Larry Schwartz, evp at New York-based Lugz. “If we keep those attributes of toughness and rebellion and project those to another audience, then we make it work.”

For a slightly older crowd, Harvick embodies the same rebellious spirit Lugz tried to portray with DJ Funkmaster Flex and Birdman, Schwartz said. In a 30-second spot from independent Avrett Free Ginsberg in New York that broke earlier this month, Harvick’s car races over New York’s Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. As the car speeds along, the camera reveals that Harvick, wearing Lugz’ new line, is shifting, accelerating and steering from a building rooftop via a remote-control system.

In recent years, Nascar has garnered larger, more diverse audiences than it had in the past, widening its appeal to advertisers. This year, Nascar telecasts on Fox reeled in 9 million viewers on average, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. In addition to Nextel, which took over title sponsorship for Nascar’s main race series this year, the new generation of advertisers include Callaway Golf Clubs, Sun Trust Bank, Estée Lauder and Citizen watches.

Now, urban brands like Lugz are straddling the line between mainstream and niche consumers by hooking up with Nascar. Pop-music producer Pharrell Williams’ group N.E.R.D. this season is co-sponsoring Craftsman Truck Series driver Bill Lester, an African American. Lester sponsor LidRock, a company that distributes CDs and DVDs via soda-concession lids, distributed the band’s first single and music video on combo CD/DVDs at Nascar in March and April. Last year, hip-hop’s Nelly used Nascar to launch Vokal, a genre-inspired clothing line.

“I would say the benefit works both ways,” said Dean Crutchfield, vp of marketing at brand consultancy Wolff Olins in New York. “There is a certain vibrancy they both bring. … They rub off on each other very well.”

Schwartz believes Lugz—which spent about $10 million on advertising in 2003, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus—is ahead of the curve as Nascar seeks to tap the urban market. Nascar has instituted a variety of diversity programs, but has not gained a major foothold in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. “We have some work to do there,” said Nascar managing director of brand and consumer marketing Roger VanDerSnick. Atlanta remains Nascar’s No. 1 urban center.

Meanwhile, Schwartz hopes Lugz’s efforts to branch out do not distance itself from the audience that has carried it this far. “You don’t want to alienate the people that brought you to the party,” he said. “Those urban kids who are into Nascar will see our ads; those who are not will never see those spots.”