FORTUNE — In sports marketing, there are certain perks that come with being a top advertiser: a sponsor’s box, meet-and-greets with the biggest athletes, tickets to the Super Bowl. For NASCAR’s biggest sponsors, it’s access to an elite insiders’ gathering that is unique among pro sports marketing. Today, in the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas, 49 of NASCAR’s “official partners” — the highest sponsorship level the sport’s sanctioning body offers — are gathering for this year’s first Fuel for Business Council meeting, an opportunity for the sport’s biggest spenders to powwow and network and talk about ideas related to NASCAR — and not.
Four times a year, for one day only, and in rotating cities — the last one was in Miami in November — a group of sports marketing executives from some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies gather for a round of private, candid discussions about the state of motorsports, how they can freshen up their sponsorships, and, most interestingly, whether their companies could do some business together outside the sport.
Started in 2004, the idea first came from a conversation between NASCAR and NewPage, a small Ohio-based paper company that was an official partner a decade ago (but has since ended its sponsorship). Seeking the opportunity to network with the sport’s other big sponsors, the company asked NASCAR brass if it could arrange some time for the sponsors to gather. “They said, ‘We’re a sponsor, yes, but we’re in the sport to sell paper. And we think there’s a chance to do more of that if we can get in a room and talk to our family of NASCAR partners,” says a NASCAR spokesperson. The first gathering was held in Florida, with about half the number of attendees it draws today.
The gatherings now typically draw about 100 executives, mostly marketing vice presidents or brand reps or whichever person from the brand handles sports sponsorships. The attendee list reads like a who’s who of the Fortune 500: Coca-Cola
, Mars, Mondelez
, and Sunoco are among the regulars.
“I was really excited when they created this, because the galaxy of partners could now link up and talk,” says former Chevrolet CMO Brent Dewar — who left to become COO of NASCAR itself this past January. “In the past, we would meet the other folks in bigger meetings, or driver introductions or at the track, but there wasn’t any mechanism to actually connect other than shaking hands in passing.”
Other major sports leagues have their own networking offerings for sponsors, but none appears to be quite as extensive. The NBA, for example, hosted its first standalone business-to-business event for sponsors this past June; the NFL holds a “partner summit” once a year.
What’s surprising isn’t that NASCAR brings its sponsors together — the sport’s mandate, after all, is to sell sponsorships, and it is famously good at that task — but what the sponsors do in that room. One popular event at each gathering, for example, is the council’s “speed meetings” (think speed-dating for business) in which brands that have requested each other ahead of time sit for a private 20-minute chat. The council has facilitated over 1,000 of them to date; it was in one of them that Ford and MillerCoors decided to tag-team a recent sweepstakes around designated drivers, with Penske Racing driver Brad Keselowski (who drives a Ford Fusion) as the face of the campaign.
The council has become more than just a “value-add.” Tim Duerr, Ford’s motorsports marketing manager, says Ford
actually measures the value of its NASCAR sponsorship by how productive that year’s Fuel for Business meetings were. “We get very analytical in keeping track of the wins we have from that arena, and those allow us to justify our involvement in the sport,” he says. “Wins” refers to direct sales of products or services that come out of the council relationships. Recent “wins” for Ford include partnering with Sprint for a pace-car sweepstakes that was Ford’s most successful ever in terms of sales, and becoming the choice for waste management company Safety-Kleen’s fleet of vans. The corporate reps take their wins very seriously: Every year, the council votes on a “Driving Business” award, and Duerr boasts that Ford has won it in two of the last three years. (For today’s meeting, Duerr says he requested speed meetings with MillerCoors, Sprint, Liberty Tire Recycling, and Drive4COPD, a group that raises awareness about a common lung disease.)
The tone and feel of the council is changing to match a shift in NASCAR. For years the sport has attempted to move away from its association with only one type of fan: red-state, beer-swilling, and male. To do so, it has courted a different breed of sponsors, like technology companies. Last year, after collaborating with NASCAR in 2012 to set up its new fan and media engagement center, Hewlett-Packard
signed on as an official technology sponsor. Tony Erickson, HP’s media and entertainment VP, says other NASCAR partners are now asking HP to build similar setups for them. In his first year on the council, Erickson says he used his speed meetings “to explore with other brands how they could leverage NASCAR’s technology platform.” This year, he says, he’ll be shifting to how they can build their own.
Erickson believes NASCAR is successfully migrating its sponsor roster toward the technology sector: “It’s much more appropriate for us now. I’d be surprised if within the next year you don’t see other big tech companies start to look at the potential here.”
Dan Neely, CEO of marketing analysis firm Networked Insights, isn’t so sure. Two years ago, speaking to Fortune about NASCAR’s plans to recruit more tech giants, Neely was skeptical the sport could ever get a company like HP; now it has. And yet, according to his firm’s data, the sport still hasn’t gained major traction with true tech enthusiasts. “There’s an ingrained interest in the car category from people who care about technology, because of people like Elon Musk,” Neely says. “But they haven’t driven after it. They have focused on ‘tech at the track.’ They have not focused on putting NASCAR into every aspect of my life through technology.”
John Seifert, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, says that when NASCAR selected it as its agency in 2012, one of its first observations was that the sport needed to make better use of technology to court more eyeballs. “We recognized that they had some fundamental challenges. Were they going to pull in a younger, more diverse audience when those audiences have so many other choices to pursue? Were they technologically advanced enough for the digital age?” Seifert says that in addition to the sport’s ability to leverage data — these days, every sports fan does seem to be a stat-head — the branding of each driver is going to be key. Just last week, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his second Daytona 500, the driver began tweeting for the first time. Among the new flood of tweets he sent was a “selfie” in front of a statue of his late father; fans and media went crazy over covering the emotional shot.
What’s perhaps more notable, Networked Insights’ Neely says, is the ground that NASCAR has gained in courting another group of new advertisers: luxury brands. That sector has gone from the bottom 10% to the top 20% in terms of affinity for the sport (meaning that people who care about certain brands – Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Michael Kors, specifically — now also care about NASCAR). Neely says this is a big new group of potential advertisers with a lot of potential, if NASCAR can appeal to them the right way. “They need to start using social data to better figure out who to have in that room,” he says. Sounds like a great topic for a speed meeting today in Las Vegas.