UK Brand Doesn’t Find Victory Lane, but NASCAR Territory a Good Target
Other than the fact that the stock car bearing the UK paint job crawled around the Kentucky Speedway track during the Quaker State 400 Saturday night, as marketing goes, it was not a bad week for the interlocking U and K.
The baseball program contributed early, with the word Monday of Austin Cousino’s successful debut with the USA Collegiate National Team (two doubles, three RBIs and a stolen base). That was followed Tuesday by the announcement that Kentucky finished the season ranked as high as number 19. It was the 13th consecutive week the baseball Wildcats spent in the Top 25.
Then came Thursday night, and the historic 1-2 selections in the NBA Draft, with Anthony Davis (as expected) chosen first by the New Orleans Hornets, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (expected by few, including John Calipari) next taken by the Charlotte Bobcats.
North Carolina may have had more players taken in the lottery, but it was UK with a total of six players selected overall, including the first two, which has never happened in the history of the NBA Draft.On that same day, reporters, bloggers, photographers and videographers jammed the Bluegrass Room at the Kentucky Speedway media center, where space already was at a premium because an actual NASCAR vehicle was in the room, literally under wraps.
Team owner Michael Waltrip had asked sponsor Aaron’s for permission to have the 55 car painted with the color scheme of his favorite school, UK. Waltrip is an Owensboro native and grew up a Wildcat fan. He described how he begged his parents for the chance to stay up late and watch the delayed telecasts of UK games after the news.
The ’78 national championship team was among his early favorites, and of course he thrilled with the rest of the Big Blue Nation in the 2012 title the team brought home in April. In fact, not only was Waltrip there, in New Orleans, the night the Cats beat Kansas in the final, he attended the game with fellow driver Clint Bowyer – a Kansas native.
So Waltrip reveled in the chance to display the UK colors that adorned his car, joining athletics director Mitch Barnhart as they did the honors, pulling off the black cover to reveal the UK logo on the hood, the Wildcat emblem on the sides and the eight years representing the championship teams on the rear side panel.
It was the marriage of two sports never wed before: NASCAR and UK basketball.
“Any time you can be out here associated in an environment that is completely out of your element, and expose your brand to other folks, it’s tremendously helpful,” Barnhart said. “You associate yourself with someone like Michael and his family, sort of the backdrop of NASCAR and racing, it’s tremendously helpful. (They) have been winners ever since they’ve been in this thing.”
Indeed, Waltrip twice has won stock car racing’s greatest prize, the Daytona 500, and his big brother Darrell this year was inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame.
“Big Blue Nation is huge,” Waltrip said. “The basketball team has had an amazing run. The championship in New Orleans was a wonderful night. To return home and give fans of Kentucky basketball and the NASCAR fans in this area chance to celebrate again – this is bonus celebration. They didn’t see this one coming.”
“He’s a lifelong fan of our program,” said Barnhart. “It’s a really cool marriage, to be able to do something like that. It’s fun stuff.”
It was almost too much to consider a victory by Waltrip in the 55 car. Naturally, he was hoping to deliver for the Wildcat fans at the Speedway. “We’ve given them a great reason to cheer,” he said of the paint job. “We can’t wait to get the car on the track.”
Unfortunately, said car performed like one of those directional schools imported to Rupp Arena to take a pounding from the home team. Waltrip started 39th and finished 30th, surrendering the lead lap after just 36 trips around the 1.5 mile oval.
Waltrip and his crew couldn’t communicate for the entire race because of a radio malfunction, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine/University of Kentucky Toyota just didn’t have enough to hang with the big boys. Thanks to a late flat tire, Waltrip finished three laps down to eventual winner Brad Kesleowski.
“I was too nervous to really enjoy the pace laps, but racing here in Kentucky, in front of these fans, was an awesome experience,” said Waltrip, who did not drive last year, in the Speedway’s inaugural Cup race. “This weekend was fun. The crowd was wonderful and getting to honor UK on our car was something special. I think we made a lot of new fans tonight. Aaron’s made my dreams come true this weekend.”
Barnhart and his staff certainly appreciated the opportunity to expand the reach of the BBN.
“This kind of visibility is great stuff,” he said. “Just walking in here, I saw so many Kentucky shirts from people standing out there. I saw the logo on a couple of shirts walking in. They’re certainly excited about us being here and we’re thrilled to be here.”
Now, if only they can figure out a way to get that U-K logo on a car in Victory Lane.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)