Friday, November 9, 2007 Updated: November 13, 2:37 AM ET
Infield Parking website connects fans directly to some drivers
By Ellen Siska Special to ESPN.com
It's "social networking" for NASCAR fans.
Drivers with Infield Parking spaces
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Juan Pablo Montoya
While millions of Internet users log on every day to general interactive websites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo, race fans have their own corner of cyberspace, Infield Parking [www.infieldparking.com], where they create personal profiles, discuss racing with other fans and share photos and videos.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., an admitted "Internet junkie," is a co-founder of Infield Parking, which launched in February. But the site is not just for fans of NASCAR's most popular driver.
"We wanted to create a community of race fans, and all the parties that are involved with racing, and have them all come to one place," said Ed Sullivan, Infield Parking CEO and co-founder. "We run this as a neutral platform. We are not Dale Jr.'s site. We've been working very hard to bring in other drivers and we're now talking to teams, tracks, and bringing sponsors in."
"Infield Parking leverages the power of social networking to bring together fans of all drivers eager to share their passion for the sport," Sullivan said. "It creates a central place on the Internet where people can interact with fellow racing fans, drivers, and spark their own discussions and conversations about racing."
Earnhardt's endorsement of the site brings an element of authenticity that other social networking sites cannot offer.
"Infield Parking offers protection of the entire community -- the constituents within the system such as drivers, tracks, and sponsors -- not found at other social networking sites," Sullivan said. "At any given time on MySpace, there may be five or six pages where people claim to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Elliott Sadler or another driver. This was an opportunity for Dale to be a leader within the industry and actually help protect everyone. There is a level of authenticity that we wanted to bring to the sport so that people knew that if they came on Infield Parking and went to Dale Jr.'s page, that it's Dale Jr.'s page. It's not fake. So that was a primary motivating factor."
And while the most popular drivers already had a presence on the Web, Sullivan said others either didn't have sites or were not using them to their advantage.
"Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr. -- they are all at a much different level of sophistication online than some of the other drivers, who have not understood how to tie into their brand, their presence and their popularity online," Sullivan said. "A lot of guys would build websites and not know how to use them. They had a website that they didn't update or do anything with.
"The websites became blasé and boring, and nobody came back. There is also general misunderstanding in a lot of circles, whether it is family helping a driver run the site or a professional management team, of how to use an online property to accentuate popularity around the racetrack. So we spent a lot of time calling ourselves evangelists. We've been evangelizing social media, video, blogging and things like that to these drivers to connect with their fans."
Sullivan said the site boasts about 45,000 registered users, 70 percent female, with 82 percent returning regularly.
"The biggest age group is between 30 and 40 years old, with people as young as 16 and as old as 72," he said. "It's interesting because MySpace users are mostly 25-year-olds. We have over 1.2 million posts on our forums. We didn't think anyone would use our forums, but it's actually one of the most popular features."
Fans also enjoy reading driver blogs and viewing their personal photos and videos.
"Everybody wants to touch the driver, and this is a way of hearing a driver's personal thoughts or seeing his personal pictures," Sullivan said. "Dale's been putting up videos after every press conference he had this year, and some of the other drivers started to do similar things.
Internet-savvy Jeff Gordon uses his Infield Parking site as a gateway to JeffGordon.com while others use infieldparking.com as their personal websites.
"Someone like Jeff Gordon -- he's the second-most popular driver and has his own fan base. This is purely an on-ramp to his property, JeffGordon.com. Some of the other drivers use Infield Parking as their primary property because they don't have that kind of presence. They realize that if they get involved with a community of other drivers and where a large collection of fans congregate, then they're going to get the benefit of all of these people coming together.
Sullivan sees plenty of growth ahead for Infield Parking as it expands beyond NASCAR.
"As we continue to grow, the overall vision is a pure racing site," he said. "Part of our long-term strategy is that race fans from all different levels will come in and have a reason to be on Infield Parking, at the grassroots level. We've had a few small tracks contact us, and now they're going to go out and get their local drivers, sponsors, and fans involved. These people may or may not be NASCAR fans, but they'll come in and talk about what happened at the local track on Saturday night. That's almost cooler in some aspects than NASCAR, because there are so many news sources on NASCAR, but no news sources on Iowa Speedway. So we think that is a really neat part of what Infield Parking can become."