NEW YORK: An extensive research program has helped NASCAR, the largest sanctioning body for stock-car racing in the US, engage a new generation of fans in the wake of the financial crisis.

The economic downturn that swept much of the globe in 2008/09 hit NASCAR doubly hard according to Kim Brink, its vp/marketing, as working class fans cut back on going to races and some sponsors pulled out.

Up until that point, Brink told delegates at the Advertising Research Foundation's 2014 Re:Think conference, the organisation hadn't placed much emphasis on research. But faced with declining race attendances, it was forced to take action.

"Our leadership team undertook what was – without question – the most comprehensive research study ever done by a sports league," she said.

"We talked to our core fans. We talked to casual and lapsed fans. And we talked to potential new fans that we wanted to invite into the sport." (For more, including how NASCAR tapped into Hispanic culture, read Warc's exclusive report: NASCAR's recession pit stop recharges branding program.)

Having identified the drama and unpredictability of races as a big attraction, the next step was to find ways to sell that to a new generation of racegoers.

Brink referred to the sport's previous self-recruiting model in showing why this was important: "If you had a father and uncle who was into the sport, then you likely would be. That's not happening anymore."

One of the things NASCAR had to do was "get much more aggressive … in the digital space, with fantasy [sports], and with mobile apps." These tools helped foster engagement with a new audience of millennials.

At the same time, NASCAR developed "at-track connectivity" to keep those younger racegoers interested when they went to events. That is what millennials "expect", said Brink, and it was something all sports leagues were having to deal with.

The rejuvenation efforts, to date, "have galvanized our industry," she said. "People are excited about it. We're being much more aggressive in our marketing, which they like."

Data sourced from Warc