Watkins Glen International is one of the most historic raceways in the United States. It’s the site of the first organized road racing event after World War II, home to one of the few road courses on the NASCAR circuit. It’s one of the largest, oldest, and most historic tracks in the northeast, but it had an interesting problem -- one that I spent my summer trying to solve.

Watkins Glen may fill their grandstands on NASCAR weekends, but their customer base is starting to age out of the bleacher-seat experience. They needed a younger target market, but their mid-80s promotion methods weren’t up to the task. When I was hired as a summer marketing intern, I had an interesting challenge ahead of me -- how was I going to get a new generation interested in motorsports?

The solution lay in an all-out social media overhaul. If we were going to find younger fans, we needed to be active in the places where they spend their time. Luckily, I had been handed the reins to Watkins Glen’s Show Car Tour marketing program -- and I intended to revamp every bit of it.

The Show Car Tour process was simple when I arrived: bring a NASCAR vehicle to an event, take down pen-and-paper entries for a ticket giveaway, and draw a winner at the end of the night. The core of the effort was data collection -- to enter the drawing, fans had to leave their name, phone number and email. That information was used for lead generation, with the hope that cold calls would lead to new sales and lasting customer relationships. 

It’s not hard to see why this wasn’t working. Pen-and-paper data collection and cold calling don’t just predate social media -- they’re from a time before caller ID. Younger people aren’t receptive to that form of marketing, and a business built around it is doomed when that market becomes the mainstream. Watkins Glen needed to modernize -- and fast. 

So, I put the Show Car program on the Rocky regimen -- cut the fat, build up what works, and replace what doesn’t. Lead generation was scrapped, and the entire giveaway system went digital. Rather than take entries with a handwritten note, we went social. I turned the Show Car giveaway into a photo contest: Take a photo of the car, post it on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook with a branded hashtag, and I’d pick the best photo to take home a prize.

It wasn’t a seamless transition. Even on the last Show Car stop of the summer I was still hand-writing the hashtag on the back of other promotional materials. Plans for advance promotion of Show Car stops fell through, and were eventually cancelled altogether. Yet, despite the setbacks, something interesting started happening. 

Our contest was gaining traction. Not only were the number of entrants increasing, the hashtag was actually being used independently of the contest. People were using it to reach out to Watkins Glen with questions, trying to track down the next place the Show Car would appear. We weren’t just making our customers into influencers -- we’d developed a new way to engage with fans.

Higher-ups at Watkins Glen were stunned. No one had predicted the level of engagement we were seeing -- even I wasn’t expecting that kind of organic hashtag adoption. Over the course of one summer, the Show Car appeared on eighteen days -- and in over eighty social media posts. With no promotion, little support, and niche appeal, we made an impression exactly where we needed to. 

I don’t know what Watkins Glen has in store for next summer’s Show Car Tour. I haven’t heard if they’ve even hired interns to handle the program for the upcoming season. I can only hope, though, that they’ve learned from my time at the company. They don’t need to feel trapped by their aging market. The customers they need are out there -- Watkins Glen just needs to know where to look.

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