I was a NASCAR fan long before I began a career in the sport. Attending races was a visceral and visual experience. The smells, the sounds and the chaos of overwhelming crowds is a lasting memory. I was fortunate to begin my racing career in the mid-1990s, the very time when it was on a stratospheric trajectory into the public consciousness. This amazing period was the result of many things, but one of the most important was the attention from Madison Avenue.

Yes, NASCAR has had corporate attention for decades, and for many years prior to the mid-1990’s. However, it was still considered a “southern sport” and any commercials or endorsements seen on television and in print still had the good ole’ boy feel.

Enter Jeff Gordon. Young, handsome and polished. Suddenly the mainstream advertisers had someone they could feed to the masses. And they did, and others followed. The new norm was racers with pearly white smiles and camera-ready hair. I must have heard “we need the next Jeff Gordon” a thousand times as everyone involved in the sport, teams, advertisers, sponsors and even the series itself all searched for the next Madison Avenue darling. What a fantastic time in the sport.

That time period also gave birth to a negative shift that I feel affects the sport today, one that I saw creeping in slowly. Fast forward to today and I now see that negative element in nearly every sponsorship meetings I’ve attended in the past several years. See if this sounds familiar…”What can you do for me on the B2B side? What sponsor currently involved in the sport can you introduce me to? Who can we do business with?” “What corporate racing partner can purchase our product or service?”

Without a doubt, the corporate B2B aspect of the sport is extremely important and a vital part of the landscape. However, there is an element missing from nearly every one of these potential sponsors questions. The FAN! As a marketing professional, it is imperative that I provide any client / potential motorsports sponsor a platform for success. And fans are still a key component to that success.

Flashback to my days as a fan and even my early racing career. The fan was a central part of nearly every sponsor platform. Activation was king. Sampling, games, free products, bags were overflowing with free stuff. Repetition at the races and the subsequent product usage translated to purchases at the store (online). These at-track experiences created dedicated, loyal fans in the home. Store aisles were lined with driver standees, faces on cereal boxes, free products with purchase. Fans couldn’t get enough. The ROI was obvious and measurable, long before it became a necessity to provide charts, graphs, and social media stats to prove it. (more on social media shortly) Have you looked at the fan midway at a NASCAR event recently? Something is missing.

What I find interesting is the yin and yang happening at different ends of the same pie. The series and the tracks appear to be moving back to a fan-centric model. Family packages, free tickets for children, more stadium style atmospheres that mirror what many of the stick and ball sports enjoy. It appears they fully understand that without fans, it doesn’t matter what is happening on the racetrack.

By contrast, and this is certainly only my opinion based on my personal experience, the sponsors, and by default, the teams are allowing the B2B aspect of the equation to overshadow a key ingredient; the fans. With very few exceptions, EVERY sponsor platform should have a robust and strategic fan engagement plan. This isn’t to say that none of the current sponsors are engaging fans, many do. However, true engagement has become the exception, not the norm. And no, social media by itself isn’t fan engagement. When is the last time you ate a hashtag or drank a twitter post? And did you have an emotional connection with that Instagram photo?

Social media is a major part of the landscape. When done properly it is a fantastic and necessary “addition” to a fan engagement platform. However, it should never be your only fan engagement tool. In my opinion, social media has become somewhat of a crutch, the easy way for teams and sponsors to say they are connecting with fans. “We have 50,000 followers”…Ok, what percentage of those people have actually touched, eaten, played with or worn your product?

Why do you think politicians still go to the diners, shops and doughnut eateries across this Nation when campaigning for office? It’s to engage voters. To create a personal one on one engagement experience. They shake hands, talk to voters, sympathize and relate to them, creating an emotional connection. The single most important ingredient to securing a vote — EMOTION. Well, the same thing applies to race fans (and thus consumers).

Real and robust engagement creates fans. Fans buy tickets, fans watch the races on TV and fans purchase your sponsor products. Without fans, truly engaged fans who are you marketing too?