Nascar Is Ready for Its Closeup

Drivers, movie studios have become fast friends

After a four-year dry spell, Dale Earnhardt Jr. on June 17 raced to his first Nascar Sprint Cup win in 144 tries, beating the field at Michigan International Speedway with a little help from Batman.

Earnhardt roared to victory at the Quicken Loans 400 behind the wheel of a custom-painted, Batman-inspired black Chevy Impala. Along with the logo for the upcoming Warner Bros. release The Dark Knight Rises—which was emblazoned across the hood—the No. 88 car was enhanced by portraits of the Caped Crusader and his spine-crushing nemesis, Bane.

Fans got their first look at the Dark Knight Rises car during a practice run earlier that same week. Making a surprise appearance alongside Earnhardt’s vehicle was the “Tumbler,” the militarized Batmobile introduced in 2005's Batman Begins.

Earnhardt’s win in Michigan marked the second time a car with a movie-themed paint job claimed victory in the last four Nascar races. On June 3, Jimmie Johnson dominated the FedEx 400 in a Chevrolet adorned with characters from Dreamworks’ talking animal movie, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.

Johnson went the extra mile for the studio, sporting a puffy rainbow wig in the victory lane and during his postrace press briefing. The colorful rug was a nod to the wigs worn by the film’s Zoosters. Shortly after the race, replicas of Johnson’s headwear were available on Ticketmaster for $20 a pop.

Three weeks into its run, Madagascar 3 has scared up $157.6 million at the box office. And while there’s no surefire way to quantify the impact of Johnson’s paint job, insiders say the sponsorship earned Dreamworks the equivalent of $3.5 million to $4 million in impressions.

And the synergy between the studios and Nascar shows no sign of slowing down. Yesterday in Sonoma, Tomy Drissi made his first Sprint Cup Series start at the helm of a freshly painted Ice Age: Continental Drift Chevrolet. Unfortunately, Drissi crashed in the 83rd lap, somewhat limiting the car’s exposure.

Studios are particularly enamored with Nascar because its fans are among the most brand-loyal; according to Ipsos, Nascar enthusiasts are three times as likely as nonfans to purchase products and services from marketers that sponsor the sport.

Movie studios account for the sixth-biggest category that spends on Nascar. Throughout the 2011 season, studios invested $15.6 million in Nascar-related advertising, per Nielsen.

The hefty ad spend also reflects Nascar’s ongoing ratings surge. For example, Earnhardt’s Batman-enhanced Quicken Loans 400 win was witnessed by 5.28 million TNT viewers, of which 1.86 million were members of the adults 18-to-49 demo. TNT’s deliveries for the June 17 race were up 8 percent versus the prior-year telecast, marking a six-year high.

While Fox’s 2012 Nascar season was somewhat soft—the network saw ratings declines in seven of its 13 broadcasts—it is serious about sticking with the sport. Sources say Fox has already begun talks with Nascar to extend its current rights deal, which expires in 2014. 

The network pays $220 million a year for its Nascar package. The TNT ($83.5 million) and ESPN ($270 million) rights packages also expire in two years.