A card-carrying believer, Alvin Kamara has ‘lots of ideas’ to bring new fans into NASCAR
LEBANON, Tennessee – A smiling Alvin Kamara, swarmed as much by admirers as he usually is by linebackers, proudly kept flashing the NASCAR credential clipped on his Palm Angels tracksuit.
Many have noticed the pass resembles none other permitting entry to the pits at Nashville Superspeedway on this sweltering Sunday morning. Perhaps such special access is befitting a four-time Pro Bowler who tied a 91-year-old NFL record by scoring six touchdowns in a game last season.
But there’s another reason this glass-cased credential, constantly at the ready on a retractable cord connected to his right pocket, was unique – namely, that it’s not a credential.
This is a standard-issue employee badge/keycard with the company logo, name and mugshot of NASCAR’s new Growth and Engagement Advisor.
“Now that won’t get you shit in the garage,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps tells Kamara in an easy and playful rapport. “But that will get you in our building.”
Kamara, who had a date with Phelps’ marketing team to brainstorm ideas on a whiteboard for a full day at corporate headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, laughed heartily while in the air-conditioned office of NASCAR’s mobile trailer, a brief respite from his first full-scale “immersion” of pounding the blacktop for hours in the infield at a NASCAR race.
“I know, man, I got to get me one of those,” the New Orleans Saints superstar running back said, pointing to Phelps’ “hard card” (the industry term for NASCAR’s all-access garage pass). “But I think I got enough finesse with my verbal game that I can probably get somewhere around the garage. It already has worked this morning!”
Navigating the garage as deftly as he glides across the gridiron, Kamara has shown a knack for getting ingratiated into stock-car racing, which was hardly his first love when he randomly flipped on a race last year and tweeted about seeing Bubba Wallace’s Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville.
Four days later, he was at the Homestead track (a short drive from his Miami home), kicking off a rapid transformation from superfan (Nashville is the fifth race weekend he’s attended in barely more than a year) to sponsor (he put together backing for an Xfinity Series team in roughly four days with his juice bar, The Big Squeezy) to employee in a multiyear deal with NASCAR that was brokered by the Klutch Sports Group agency that represents several NFL and NBA stars (including LeBron James, a close friend and business associate of Klutch CEO and founder Rich Paul).
“Just to bring my awareness to the sport,” Kamara, 25, told NBC Sports about his new gig as a de-facto marketing consultant for NASCAR. “A different crowd. A different demographic. Because for so long, just to speak candidly, I’m a young black male, and this wasn’t a space where I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to go to a NASCAR race, or I want to watch NASCAR.’ So I think with me being in this position, I feel like it gives a sense of comfort and a sense of, ‘All right, well, I can explore that curiosity without feeling weird.’
“Just me being in this space gives some other people who maybe don’t look like the typical NASCAR fan to feel welcome. Getting people comfortable to try it and come up with some cool ways to welcome new fans. That’s huge. I’m excited. I’m happy.”
NASCAR equally has been pleased with his resonance. Of more than two dozen pieces of Kamara-featured content shared across its social platforms, the engagement has been twice as high as for typical posts shared across NASCAR’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts since last year, and the impressions have been 84 percent higher.
For NASCAR, which is trying to stem a 21st-century audience retrenchment and graying fan base after explosive growth in the 1990s, there have been signs of traction with Kamara’s generation and minority audiences.
According to Zoomph, NASCAR’s Gen Z and Millennial social audiences each grew by 19 percent between from the 2020 to 2021 Daytona 500, and a Morning Consult poll last November ranked NASCAR ninth among fastest-growing brands for Gen Z adults (18-23).
Many in the industry are crediting the cross-cultural presence of transcendent celebrities and athletes such as Kamara, Michael Jordan (who attended last weekend at Pocono Raceway as the new co-owner this year of the No. 23 Toyota driven by Bubba Wallace) and Pitbull, a co-owner of the startup Trackhouse team with Mexican driver Daniel Suarez.
“It’s getting more eyes on it,” said Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, among NASCAR’s most active stars with cross-promotion. “Whether Pitbull, Alvin Kamara and all these different people who want to be involved in the sport, it’s just growing an audience of people who maybe never had an interest in NASCAR, but their favorite athlete shows a big interest in NASCAR. Their fans are going to be like, ‘(NASCAR) must be really cool if my favorite athlete likes it, so let me watch it.’ That part is great, and it’s really neat to be a part of, and I’ve worked at NASCAR a lot trying to do my part growing it. It’s neat the direction it’s going, and the new people coming in, it’s definitely helping the sport.”
NASCAR officials have stressed this isn’t the result of throwing cash at highly paid social influencers.
“What’s cool is it’s genuine; it’s not about the money,” NASCAR chief marketing officer Pete Jung told NBC Sports. “It’s about people interested in playing a role in our journey and what we represent and mean. The type of people who can open doors to trying NASCAR. It’s like Christmas for a marketer. Having these people who are as real and authentic as they come like Pitbull. He brought a piece of paper with 50 ideas this week, and they’re great. He’s got connections, resources and ideas and creativity, it’s just about, ‘We’re interested in supporting you guys and want to play a role.’
“It just starts with a common respect and building a relationship. Nothing has been a pitch to Alvin. He’s just a terrific human being, as is Pitbull. Nothing is fabricated like, ‘Pretend you like NASCAR.’ We haven’t pushed it.”
Football crossovers are nothing new in NASCAR, which has a long history of NFL stars (such as Randy Moss) who dabbled in team ownership. But NASCAR never appealed to Kamara while growing up in the Atlanta area.
“Before I was like, ‘Hell no!’ ” Kamara said. “There’s nobody that looks like me. It’s not something that is big in my community. It’s Confederate flags.”
For Kamara, NASCAR’s move to ban the Confederate flag – which happened last year on the same day he began tweeting about watching a race – was the major step that NASCAR was “getting the picture of trying to make some changes to be inclusive.
“It’s like skull and bones,” Kamara said of the Confederate flag. “That’s like poison. That’s a sign of hate. And growing up in the South, I’ve been around and seen that. I know what it means, and people know what it means. People try to act ignorant to the fact that, ‘Oh no, I just love my country, and it’s this and that.’ No. Being from Georgia, that’s not what it is. It’s hate, and people try to hide behind it and make it seem like it’s something else. But it’s really hate and cruelty.
“For NASCAR to take the step and ban it was huge. That was when I was like, ‘OK, all right. Let me go see what’s going on.’ And we’re here now.”
The Confederate flag ban came after lobbying by Bubba Wallace, who also was the conduit for Kamara’s indirect introduction to NASCAR six years ago.
A longtime University of Tennessee fan, Wallace was invited to Volunteers practices and donned Kamara’s helmet and No. 6 jersey. They met when the 23XI driver toured the school’s facility during Kamara’s two seasons as a star running back before being selected in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Wallace was among the first greeting Kamara as he entered the Nashville garage at 10:30 a.m. -- and then quickly was besieged by autograph seekers and NASCAR team members seeking selfies.
Kamara and his brand team from Klutch (which includes his sister, Garmai Momolu, who also works with NFL newcomers Jeff Okudah and DeVonta Smith; and Damarius Bilbo, Klutch’s head of football) duck into a NASCAR inspection bay with a large fan that is circulating air to help escape the oppressive heat.
Despite temperatures in the mid-90s, Kamara never sheds the designer black tracksuit (and hardly broke a sweat, a good sign of his conditioning for Saints training camp in late July). Followed by a camera crew capturing content for NASCAR, his small entourage constantly drew a crowd while turning the heads of both fans and high-ranking NASCAR team executives.
It was a different experience than Kamara’s first race, which he watched from a suite at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Midway through, a stranger struck up a conversation and explained many nuances (such as the gauges on the cars and strategies during the race). Kamara learned afterward that it was Phelps.
“It was surprising to me, because I didn’t know that this was like a welcoming environment for someone that looks like me until I came,” Kamara said. “Then I was like, “Oh, OK. Everybody cool. They don’t have no issue.’ Steve came up to me and was talking, and I didn’t even know who he was. I’m like, ‘Man, that guy is nice.’ ‘Yeah, that’s the president of NASCAR.’
“What the hell! Why the hell is he talking to me? But that’s the vibe and sense you get around all the drivers and staff and everybody in these high positions. Every time it’s refreshing, like ‘Oh, damn, these guys really care.’ They’re like, ‘Welcome back, Alvin!’ So it’s cool.”
Alvin Kamara shares a laugh with two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch before the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway (Donald Page/Getty Images).
Though his fifth Cup race, Nashville was the first since COVID-19 protocols were relaxed, marking his first in-person meetings with stars he previously interacted with only over social media. During a lap around the garage, Kamara meets Kyle Busch, Blaney and Joey Logano -- a special request by Kamara, who was hooked by NASCAR drivers’ demeanors as much as “the ultimate adrenaline rush” of watching fast cars.
“It’s funny because you don’t see them, but you see their cars, and you see what their personality is from the way they drive,” Kamara said. “So I pay attention to that. And I’m like, ‘Yo, I want to meet Joey and just kind of holler at him,’ because, from what I’ve seen, Joey is the shit-talking, chip-on-his-shoulder guy who don’t give a damn.”
The style reminds him of Philip Rivers, the cocksure veteran quarterback who often practiced against the Saints in the preseason while starring for the Chargers. “Philip is cool as hell off the field, a cool dude. But when he puts the helmet on and gets between the lines in practice, oh my gosh. You want to punch Philip, and I say that in the nicest way.”
Kamara finds similarities outside the car with Blaney, Busch (who jokes about Kamara’s badge and makes a friendly pitch on hooking him up with a few cases of Rowdy Energy) and particularly Logano.
“Oh yeah, he’s a nice dude, and suddenly in the car, he turns into an asshole, a monster,” Kamara said with a laugh. “But you’ve got to have that when you’re competing at that level they’re on, and the amount of skill it takes. Talking to them for a little bit, everybody is just a cool dude, though.”
The meeting was impromptu with Blaney, who tapped a NASCAR official for an introduction after seeing Kamara at Logano’s hauler.
“That was awesome because I’ve been a big fan, and obviously, he’s a pretty incredible athlete,” said Blaney, who also met Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey at the Coca-Cola 600. “It’s awesome you have other athletes that want to be involved and are curious about (NASCAR). We have seen that a lot over the past year or two, and that makes us feel good that they feel the same way about your sport as you feel about their sport.”
Kamara asks nonstop questions, especially during an in-race visit to the NASCAR control tower with vice president of innovation John Probst and a prerace tour of Busch’s No. 18 hauler.
TJ Ford, the jack man for Busch’s team, leads the Klutch Sports contingent down the narrow corridor lined by cabinets filled with tools, snacks and firesuits. Halfway through the truck, Kamara and his sister (who later will tweet about it) suddenly stop with looks of wonder.
“What the hell? There’s a car up there,” Kamara exclaims, spotting Busch’s backup Camry through the trapdoor in the ceiling. “There’s a car up there! How do you get it out of there?”
Between swigs of an Emerald Ice Rowdy Energy, Kamara tries on a pit crew uniform while peppering Ford, crew chief Ben Beshore and other team members for information. How did they get started in NASCAR? How are the cars built and how long does it take? Are there enough tools in the truck to build a car from scratch and how long would it take?
“I’m thinking about real life when someone’s radiator is busted, and their car is gone two months,” Kamara said. “Here it’s like the power goes out … and then it’s fixed!”
He also is intrigued by the training regimen for pit crews and how teams use digital radio channels to convey in-race adjustments and intricate tactics depending on caution flags.
“I want to see those inner workings; that’s what gets you hooked,” Kamara tells the No. 18 crew, suggesting it might make a good documentary. “You are all way more analytic. We do analytics like on third down, we run to the right 25 percent of the time. But it’s nothing like these pit stops.”
Before heading to the grid for a pace car ride, Kamara does an interview with a Netflix crew that is filming a documentary series about Wallace.
He closes with a poignant message for Bubba, whom Kamara was simultaneously proud of but also concerned for when Wallace wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt at races last year as NASCAR’s most prominent Black voice during America’s racial and social awakening.
“Him putting himself out there and being vulnerable -- maybe some would say putting his career on the line for something that was bigger than him,” Kamara told NBC Sports. “That takes such bravery and crazy mental fortitude, and it’s like the most unselfish, people-first thing you could do. Because someone like me watching, I’m like, ‘Damn, this dude is thinking about his career, but he knows in this moment, that’s small compared to what’s going on in the world.
“So for him to just be able to be like the stand-up guy he is, kudos to him. That’s why I was so heartfelt about it because it takes a man to do that. You’ve got to be confident in yourself and what you believe in, and he stood on it.”
Last year, Kamara brought a childhood friend to Bristol Motor Speedway (“He was like, ‘you’re right, this shit is dope.”) after getting some puzzled reactions from family and friends who didn’t get his newfound interest in NASCAR.
“It was like a joke, ‘What the hell are you doing at a NASCAR race?’ and I’m like, ‘Bro, I’m telling you, if you all go to a race, you’ll understand,’ ” he said. “We thought growing up that NASCAR is a super, super White sport unwelcoming to anything else other than what it looks like. But it’s the opposite, man. These guys like Steve, the Frances. From top to bottom, they want people here to enjoy the sport and see the beauty of it because there’s a lot that goes into it. It’s really a nice sport.”
Garmai Momolu worked in fashion PR and marketing before joining Klutch Sports, and her experience was instrumental in helping shape her younger brother’s brand (she advised Kamara and his Tennessee teammates to buy their website domain names while still in college). Momolu said Kamara’s NASCAR deal was considered carefully, emphasizing that having an official title of fan development and engagement would be viewed seriously and not as a contrivance.
“We do deals that are organic to who he is,” Momolu said. “That’s the only way it makes sense with his brand in general. I wanted to make sure NACAR knew we really respected them and what they’re doing, and that this was genuine.”
After briefly meeting CEO Jim France and vice chairman Mike Helton at Nashville, Kamara and his team spend 15 minutes with Phelps in the NASCAR hauler a few hours before the green flag. Kamara wants to know about NASCAR’s potential future plans for Nashville (Phelps tells him he believes the region can support a second Cup race at the city’s Fairgrounds short track) and how it views experiential marketing.
The conversation then shifts to pit stops. It’s the first Cup race for Momolu (who later will laud the experience), and Phelps advises the frenzy of four-tire changes will be a highlight when she watches the first stage from the No. 18 pit stand.
“It’s insane,” Phelps said. “They were getting down in the low 10 seconds, but we slowed the pit guns down … ”
“Because you’ve seen people cheating!” Kamara interrupts with a laugh.
“Yeah, they were cheating on the guns,” Phelps said. “My favorite is that they were dogging us because the guns were failing, and it came out they were putting nitrous in them. It was drying them out, so they’d break. And they’re dogging us! Well, stop cheating!”
Over the rest of his day at Nashville, Kamara will hopscotch around the 1.33-mile oval from the infield to the frontstretch suites, fist-bumping fans, high-fiving members of Wallace’s pit crew and shaking hands with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip.
Kamara, who also refers to his new role as “Chief Engagement Officer,” spent June 30 at NASCAR Plaza headquarters in Charlotte, hammering out plans to attract new fans with the series’ marketing and digital content departments.
As a self-described “people person,” he is passionate about understanding what draws fans to sports and has “a lot of ideas” for NASCAR (though he isn’t ready to share them publicly).
Jung said the new initiatives with Kamara could include content, licensing collaborations and fan communities (perhaps involving the Saints), and NASCAR views Kamara’s input the same way as through contracting with a high-powered consultant or agency.
“He’s super passionate about marketing and business,” Jung said. “He just bounces ideas off us. He said, ‘I want to sit in the conference room with you guys, get in the weeds and ideate.’ We’re like, ‘Bring it.’ ”
Kamara, who also has worked closely with Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s new vice president of diversity and inclusion, said he “was really just like genuinely interested and happy, they were like, “Yeah, come to a race! You can sit in the suite and talk to everybody.’ I didn’t really think, ‘Oh, I’m going to sign a deal with NASCAR.’ It just kind of happened. So to be in the position I’m in, it’s amazing. I’m excited and blessed to be able to work with some people who are super cool.
“I feel like perception on things kind of messes you up sometimes, because what I thought about NASCAR from the drivers to the staff to the sport as a whole was the complete opposite of what I found. I’m happy to get a good view and good picture of what this sport stands for.”