Some of NASCAR's newest marketing efforts are being carried out on a college campus in Northwest Washington, up the street from where Duke Ellington played jazz and a short hike from where Bill Cosby stops for his half smokes.
Howard University isn't exactly a hotbed of pistons and pit stops, but five of the school's students will travel to Miami this week to present to NASCAR officials their latest findings on ways the stock car racing league can attract young fans.
The students are finalists in the "NASCAR Kinetics: Marketing in Motion" program, an initiative designed to connect college students to the business side of racing.
"We want college students to become immersed in the world of NASCAR," program director Talia Mark said. "We want people to understand what's going on at the racetracks and understand why we love the sport but also get them immersed in the business aspects and understand all the different opportunities that NASCAR has."
Each of the five Howard students admitted to being relative newbies to NASCAR but newcomers with an interest in sports marketing or public relations.
After presenting a series of case studies and hosting a panel discussion with NASCAR officials last month, they now head to a South Beach hotel to give their take on how NASCAR can reach fans between the ages of 6 and 24. Students from Coastal Carolina University and Notre Dame also will compete, with final presentations to be made this Wednesday. The winner will get to stay in Florida and attend the season's final Sprint Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Students from Winston-Salem State, Clark Atlanta University and Central Michigan University also participated in the program but were not selected to compete in Miami.
Howard team members were wary of divulging too much of their presentation ahead of time, but they said many of their suggestions to NASCAR involve giving children a firsthand look at the sport.
"It's about making it interactive," said Brendan Henderson, a senior marketing major from Denver. "NASCAR's not something you can do in your backyard, so you kind of have to bring it to people. And that's what we focused on."
Henderson's teammates include Jamela Joseph, a senior public relations major from Oakland, Calif.; Brittney Kern, a senior finance major from Detroit; Ta'Darrell Randolph, a junior majoring in television production; and Nikeema Kadary, a junior public relations major from the Bronx, N.Y.
The group has met at least twice weekly during the semester. The students were recruited to the program by Jamie Bowman, a fellow Howard student who interned in NASCAR's headquarters last summer.
While NASCAR has a series of robust programs related to diversifying the sport and its fan base, Mark said the inclusion of Howard, one of the nation's best-known historically black colleges, had more to do with the reputation of its sports marketing program.
According to NASCAR officials, students' presentations could be used to address a legitimate concern about the level of youth interest in the sport.
"It's something NASCAR is really focused on right now," Mark said. "A lot of young NASCAR fans are typically fans because of their father. And then as they grow up and head into middle school, high school, college there are other things that interest them we want to find a way to bridge that gap in between."
The students performed more than 80 interviews with students at Howard and in elementary and middle schools in the area and found that only 1 percent of respondents named NASCAR as their favorite sport.
And how many team members were NASCAR fans before signing up for the program?
"None of us," said Jamela Joseph, a senior public relations major.
The students said they were bigger fans of basketball and the NFL, with their knowledge of NASCAR limited to the names of a few drivers. But they were willing to give the sport a shot if it meant exposure to the world of sports marketing.
"I know the sports industry is one I want to work in after I complete my degree," Kern said. "I wanted to get a diversified feel for the sports industry, and that's what NASCAR provides."
Students have been meeting about twice a week this semester on NASCAR case studies. Earlier challenges involved research on NASCAR licensed merchandise and the contingency sponsor program. Directions and resources on the case studies are deliberately scant.
"I get impressed more and more with each case study they do," Mark said. "They come into this program raw, they don't really know what we're expecting from them and that's what we want the program to be. We want it to be a real-world situation, where you don't always know what's expected of you."