- Brant James, Contributor, espnW.com
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Daymond John had never given much consideration to NASCAR as a delivery system for his marketing/branding/entrepreneurial ambitions. Some of his clients enjoy it, and the stock car series does well in its own realm, the 44-year-old founder and CEO of the FUBU clothing line and a personality on the "Shark Tank" reality show said. But John's empire is built on thumping bass, and the cultivation of youth and cool. He didn't know if NASCAR fit.
But there John was at a lunch last year, having popped in briefly with client McKayla Moroney, then watching the Olympic gold- and silver-medaling American gymnast chat with a teenage stock car driver he had just been introduced to through a friend of a friend. The kid was Alex Bowman, an ARCA driver from Tucson, Ariz., who the year before had been the rookie of the year in the NASCAR Pro Series East.
"Her and Alex started talking and my interest got piqued," John said. "This is the 'in' generation of athletes and celebrities and brands, and I said, 'Let me look into it.' I always thought of NASCAR guys being middle-America, cowboy type of guys. I have huge respect for what they do as well, and this kid started talking and he was talking to me about electronic dance music, popular culture, things I just wasn't expecting to hear out of his mouth. We started vibing and talking about that to get to know each other at first. And then we started talking about the actual NASCAR."
NASCAR, though fully stocked with the cowboys and middle-America types he expected, was more diverse than he assumed. The example of it was sitting right in front of him. This teen from Arizona, he thought, might be the entry point to a whole new market.
"When I met Alex, everything was good, but I didn't have any intentions of working with him initially, about making the jump over to NASCAR," John said. "I didn't see anything in there viable in my portfolio. And then I started the following the kid, and then he wins rookie of the year last year [in the ARCA series] and all that good stuff, and then I saw he has what it takes as a winner and as a brand himself, like those that I've worked with in the past, from the Kardashians to Pitbull, that certain thing those champions, those people of [that] caliber have."
A year later, John is helping market the 2012 ARCA Rookie of the Year in his first full Nationwide season with RAB Racing. If he continues to progress both as a driver and a pitchman, John said, prospects are bright for their individual and collaborative ambitions.
For both, becoming the next big thing for a 20-something demographic that has milled away from NASCAR in recent years could be lucrative.
"That's what I see; I see there's room for real growth there," John said. "He is very up to speed with current day and age. I think there's those standout people who cross boundaries and all of a sudden, these new kids are going to start saying: 'Hey, that's the FUBU of racing. He's a new star like I am. He's taking on the old guard and taking on the big boys. He's twittering, he's social networking, he's listening to this type of music. He's me. And I can be there.' That's when you get the crossover. When you envision yourself in that car."
If Bowman can cross over -- and get there competitively and commercially before prodigies like Nationwide driver Kyle Larson, 20, and NASCAR Pro Series standout Dylan Kwasniewski, 17, who will be the subject of an AOL docuseries this fall -- he might become the link to a barely Gen-Y set as defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski has to older 20-somethings.
"I'm still 19 years old, so I am a solid bit younger than Keselowski," Bowman said. "I am on Twitter and doing the best I can, but I hope it can happen for me."
Bowman is 11th in the Nationwide driver standings, with a third-place finish in the season opener at Daytona and a pole at Texas. A former member of the NASCAR "Next 9" prospects collection in 2011, he won six of 21 ARCA races he entered in 2011 and 2012, with 13 top-5s and 15 top-10s. He won the only two ARCA races he entered in 2011 for Venturini Motorsports. A former member of the Penske Racing developmental system while at Cunningham Motorsports in the ARCA series in 2012, he currently has no Cup team affiliation, he said.
Bowman said he considers himself "different than most other drivers in the Nationwide series -- not the typical NASCAR driver that listens to country music" because of his affinity for "West Coast lifestyle," particularly tuner cars and rap. The potential to work with sponsors that mesh with his personality, he said, will make for a better result for him and those companies.
"I feel like a brand that's real to me is going to get more bang for their buck because I'll be able to do a better job of pushing them and representing them the way they want to be represented," he said. "We're working on a lot of things just trying to get my name out there. I'm still pretty well unknown here. I'm trying to get some momentum. That has to happen before we go after some larger brands."
Bowman so far this season has been sponsored by an anti-bullying campaign, but John clients like Lil Jon could eventually show up on his car, as could signage for various apps or entertainment campaigns.
"You get an app on the hood of a car, 10,000 downloads a race, that takes care of everything," John said. "There could be causes for popular culture. There is a learning curve for me as well. The things I don't know, I need to work hard to understand.
"We did not expect this to happen this quick. If you are one of my guys who I have been branding and marketing, one of the CEOs I've been talking to the last 10 years, it's always been about sports like boxing or UFC or reality shows, movies, and all of a sudden I come to you with a race car. I don't think you're going to jump on it right away, but actually many people have."
John said the "several" NASCAR representatives he has met are "very interested" in his plans. As the sanctioning body and tracks attempt various methods to interest the fickle youth market, a sponsor/driver-based and financed campaign would seemingly be a boon -- and a free one, at that -- for the sport.
Jill Gregory, NASCAR's vice president of industry services, said the series' "desire to grow NASCAR's youth audience is clear and the presence of talented young drivers is very important to that effort."
"When they align with a sponsor that is interested in targeting youth and building the driver's brand, it's not only great for the driver and race team but for the entire sport," she said in an email to ESPN.com.
John said his concern is more about the micro approach to promoting Bowman and his brands rather than enacting change.
"It's not my intent to go in there and change NASCAR," said John, whose role on "Shark Tank" is to invest in projects pitched by contestants. "I'm one individual and I believe NASCAR has done an absolutely wonderful job over many, many years. Every brand and every segment of the market goes up and down and then they start to figure it out, so I don't want to take anything away from who they are.
"My job at first is to make sure that Alex has the support, make sure I can go out to my guys who wanted to be in NASCAR and say: 'Hey, all right guys, I know you have been working with me and spending money and now I'm in there. I see it. I get it, I understand now. I understand the convergency to more people for your brand, maybe in a way you didn't understand it before.'"
Continuing to succeed, John said, is key to the entire process.
"The bottom line is, Alex has to keep winning," he said. "He has to keep placing really well. But you know, the easiest thing is to tell the truth and it all goes back to the product. I'm not there to put lipstick on a pig. We believe in Alex. He has a little way to go and we have to build him up."
Bowman is in concert with John there too.
"Number one for me is always on the racetrack," he said. "I give that the most focus, but at the same time I spend a lot of time doing social media stuff or just media stuff in general. You always want the racing to be the number one thing in people's minds, but you want everything else to be a close second."
You may have seen Alex Bowman wheeling a race car in the Nationwide Series. You may have seen Daymond John on "Shark Tank." What do they have in common? Oh, plenty.