Exclusive: Nascar Revs Back Up With Live Racing—and Healthcare Workers as Grand Marshals

Sunday's event, televised on Fox, highlights "The Real Heroes Project"

Darlington Raceway in South Carolina will once again host live racing starting Sunday. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images.
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Nascar, in its first racing event in more than two months, will use its return to live sports on Sunday as a way to honor front-line medical workers and highlight the groundbreaking “The Real Heroes Project” cross-league campaign.

Though there will be no fans in attendance at the Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, 40 doctors, nurses, EMTs and other critical-care workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic will serve as virtual grand marshals of the event, which will air on Fox. Viewers will be able to see a mosaic of those everyday heroes kicking off the race with the iconic phrase, “Drivers, start your engines!”

Nascar has renamed the high-speed contest The Real Heroes 400, and its 40 competitors will replace their own names on the driver-side windows of their cars with the names of individual healthcare workers. “The Real Heroes Project” logo will also appear on the side panel of each vehicle.

“We have an incredible platform on national television on Sunday afternoon, and we couldn’t think of anything more natural and appropriate than to use this stage to honor and recognize those who have sacrificed their own well-being to treat and care for those affected by Covid-19,” said Jill Gregory, evp and chief marketing and content officer for Nascar.

The brand will announce the driver-hero pairings early Thursday on Fox Sports 1, and Nascar drivers have recorded video messages to invite healthcare workers to take part in the May 17 race activities.

Nascar’s effort, as live sports have come to a near-complete standstill, follows the recent launch of the “Real Heroes” PSA starring more than two dozen pro athletes including hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, World Cup soccer winner Carli Lloyd, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, tennis champ Coco Gauff, the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and WWE’s Charlotte Flair.

For the two-minute spot from 72andSunny and its production partner Hecho Studios, the elite athletes replaced their own names on their jerseys, tank tops, fire suits and polo shirts with the names of surgeons, obstetricians, registered nurses and paramedics.

For Sunday’s event, Nascar puts its own spin on that tactic, working with Fox Sports and local affiliate stations around the country to identify healthcare workers. Those being celebrated will include medical professionals from St. Francis Downtown hospital and McLeod Regional Medical Center in the shadow of the Darlington Raceway.

“The Real Heroes Project,” with a turnaround time of about four weeks from concept to finished campaign, came from an unprecedented alliance between 14 pro leagues and entertainment brands (NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS, Women’s Tennis Association, Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard and the NBA among them) and a behind-the-scenes assist from senior Adweek editors Nadine Dietz and Lisa Granatstein.

Execs at Nascar, as one of the first brands to return with new content, wanted to continue the momentum of “The Real Heroes Project,” which is meant to spawn a global movement to thank healthcare workers. (The program will nudge audiences to use #TheRealHeroes to pay tribute to those risking their lives to save others.)

“Recognizing heroes and honoring those that serve—our military and first responders—has always been very true to the DNA of our sport, our competitors and, of course, our fans,” Gregory said. “Showing our respect and admiration to these dedicated healthcare workers feels very natural for our industry to do.”

Well-known drivers Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, whom Gregory described as being “incredibly passionate about philanthropy and giving back to their communities,” appear in the “Real Heroes” PSA, with Harvick celebrating his friend and neighbor Dr. Josh Hughes and Busch honoring one of his longtime fans, EMT Heather Pleasant.

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@TLStanleyLA terry.stanley@adweek.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.