Monster Energy unleashes dazzling entertainment to NASCAR races – USA TODAY


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USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James describes how the new pavement in Fort Worth could affect drivers.
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FONTANA, Calif. — The bits of rubber on their lips and taste of gasoline fumes in their mouths were washed down with another pull on the large black cans fans held as they stood along the fence line.

About 40 minutes before the green flag for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago, the grand finale of the smoke show was rising to a decibel-and-dust climax on the midway behind the grandstand. Riders on Harley-Davidsons peeled down a long straightaway before positioning themselves along plastic barricades to vaporize their tires as fans raised fists and drinks in approval. Desert trucks careened around a massive inflatable version of a Monster Energy can and motocross bikes soared over a series of high-jump ramps.

At the periphery, former Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee chatted with motocross riders, lured to his first NASCAR race in “several years” at the behest of Monster Energy. The 54-year-old Southern Californian was a nose-pierced and skull ring-wearing representation of this grand experiment between NASCAR and Monster Energy.

“I prefer drag racing, going super-fast, super-quick,” Lee told USA TODAY Sports. “Watching people go around in a circle is not my favorite thing, but in the same breath, I’m excited because I haven’t been to a NASCAR race in a while. Maybe it’ll reignite something. Who knows.”

After entering its first season as title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series in an uncharacteristically understated fashion, Monster Energy unleashed its largest and most bombastic “Smoke Show” at the track nearest its Corona headquarters, with the requisite celebrities and a supportive off-road and motocross fanbase within easier reach.

Monster Energy vice president of sports marketing Mitch Covington has espoused the company’s foundation is built on “girls, parties and motorsports” from the beginning, but the transition from the staid corporate Sprint persona has been fitful, even if expectedly unconventional. Image-conscious NASCAR and some of its conservative fans continue to assess the parlay of needed sponsorship dollars and the allure of a younger fan base with the trappings that come with an edgy brand.

As temperatures rose, NASCAR series officials sipped from black cans of “Tour Water,” which are differentiated from other Monster Energy products by its silver tab color, supporting the brand while indulging in the palpitations of the spectators.

The Monster Energy Girls often have been a focal point. Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner and vice president of JR Motorsports, and Sherry Pollex, girlfriend of Cup driver Martin Truex Jr., were critical last month on Twitter bout their use at a glam new red carpet walk to the drivers’ meeting. A YouTube video entitled “Monster Energy Girls – NASCAR Edition” — shot here — featured the analysis of freestyle motocross rider Jeremy Stenberg, who quipped: “Without chicks, you ain’t bringing young people here.”

NASCAR did interject into the activation this week, however, when Monster Energy and Bellator announced a deal to bring MMA fighting to four pre-race shows. Bellator later issued an amended press release regarding its plans when NASCAR told USA TODAY Sports that it didn’t share a business partnership with Bellator. But Covington told Motorsport.com, “By partnering with Bellator to bring mixed martial arts to NASCAR we are able to bring a fresh dynamic to the racetrack.”

Monster Energy is in the first of a reported two-year deal with a two-year option valued at about $20 million annually. According to a company financial report issued March 1, Monster Energy’s net sales in 2016 rose 12 percent to $3 billion. The company aligned with NASCAR in seeking to increase an 18 percent household penetration rate for energy drinks, while NASCAR hopes to exploit the key 18-to-34-year-old demographic Monster Energy mines.

After just six races, Covington has no empirical data to gauge progress in the sponsorship or to judge if the pre-race show is helping, he said, but he expects to expand the audience with the show in the East.

Monster Energy’s unconventional approach to the show — its exact format for this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway still was not decided last week – mirrors that of the sponsorship.

“That’s more fun for me anyway, rather than being in a board room and planning something 12 months out,” Covington told USA TODAY Sports. “We’re learning this. And we didn’t go in with a lot of agency work where somebody who’s been doing it 30 years is suggesting what we do. To me that’s important because it brings in fresh ideas instead of ‘Hey this is how you do this.’ We want to write a new chapter, we want to do things that are cool right now.”

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Action star, rallyist and former NASCAR driver Travis Pastrana thinks Monster is in a better position to thrive in NASCAR than his energy drink sponsor did in owning a Cup team from 2006-2011.

“[Red Bull] tried NASCAR and it was one of the few things they kind of failed in as a sponsor,” Pastrana told USA TODAY Sports. “But I feel like Monster is a better fit for the NASCAR crowd in that it’s more of an open, public kind of feel, not the exclusive club like Red Bull kind of is. Monster is more just about … fun. Where Red Bull is sort of about winning and then being the best – not that Monster is not – Monster is more about, ‘OK, we’re bored. What can we do right now to make this more exciting?’ Not just with NASCAR, with anything.

“Monster had made a brand career out of figuring out how to entertain people, and if they think they can do it in NASCAR, I think they can.”

Pastrana was nearly giddy over a stunt he’d heard Monster Energy has planned for Talladega Superspeedway in May, but Covington said no details have been finalized.

Maybe that would be enough to lure Lee from Southern California to bucolic Alabama. There’s the sense he’d be game.

“I’m actually really impressed. This is a crazy (expletive) setup,” Lee said, gesturing toward the “ball of death” motorcycle cage. “The crazy death ball … I was in that. I was like, ‘Why am I in here?’

“But they’re just cool, man. It’s a younger spirit.”

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

PHOTOS: 2017 MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP SERIES SCHEDULE

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