Kurt Culbert is NASCAR’s Managing Director of Racing Communications, providing communications oversight across Competition, Racing Operations, Industry Services, Racing Innovation & Technology and Touring & Weekly. Prior to his current role, Culbert served as NASCAR’s Senior Director of Stakeholder Communications. He joined NASCAR in 2012 following 13 seasons of motorsports experience in various leadership roles. Culbert has also worked in corporate communications, working on the NASCAR sponsorship program with Sprint and later provided leadership over the motorsports practice for Taylor.
ON THE SWITCH FROM JOURNALISM TO COMMUNICATIONS
Kurt Culbert: It was difficult because being a journalist was my career goal since 7th grade, and all decisions from that point until I completed my undergrad were predicated on being a sports reporter. My first job came and it was everything I wanted it to be. But then I became alarmed each time I had to log on to this thing called the World Wide Web and saw content was flowing everywhere! This was in the late 1990s, so the reliance on the Internet by consumers for media was in its infancy. It scared me enough to consider alternate plans very quickly, but I knew I wanted to stay in sports and communications. I spoke with a reputable sports marketing firm and convinced them I’d be a good fit in the internal public relations group designed to oversee the agency’s fledging motorsports practice. The progression from there has been purely one opportunity leading to another, before deciding to join a sports league at NASCAR.
ON THE ASPECTS OF MOTORSPORTS THAT HAS KEPT HIM WORKING IN THE INDUSTRY FOR MORE THAN 10 YEARS
KC: Pure luck. It’s crazy, really. I used to joke that I was hoping to make it 10 years in sports public relations and now I’m suddenly in my 18th season in one capacity or another. I became a fan naturally, as my father was a mechanic and he too was a fan of the sport. NASCAR is behind only the Buffalo Bills in popularity where I grew up in Western New York. Deciding to work in NASCAR was the easy part, but like any job in sports, I presume, you’re rewarded for hard work and through successful projects and programs. Luck has clearly been on my side. I’ve benefitted from NASCAR, as an industry, identifying the need to evolve. I’ve spent several years of my career looking at public relations through a forward-looking lens. That has allowed the work to remain very fresh. I’ve truly enjoyed every step of the journey. And recognizing that I’m well beyond that 10-year marker, I hope it’s still a long time before I need to get a “real job”!
ON THE INFLUENCE OF AN EVER-CHANGING AND GROWING STATE OF THE MEDIA
KC: It’s so important for an organization to recognize the need to adapt. That, to me, is a major first step. NASCAR went through a massive overhaul of public relations into an integrated marketing communications model between 2010 and 2011. The original vision for that transformation has kept its DNA, but the actual layout has changed multiple times in that short span. This happened primarily due to the evolution of the way consumers are getting information and the types of information that are important for our sport to be giving them in return. There really are two areas we need to focus on while we address how we evolve. We spend a great deal learning how to get information to the end users, but also how our other areas of business are adapting and what’s most important from that perspective. Technology, for instance, is an area that has transformed our sport. NASCAR has evolved into a technology proving ground, a sport where major tech companies are turning to validate technology. That has provided an opportunity to change how we approach technology storytelling.
ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF CONSTANTLY IMPROVING THE PRODUCT AND THE EXPERIENCE
KC: It is in our culture and something [Brian France] has instilled in everyone. The status quo is no longer acceptable and we’re charged with challenging all that we do from a communications standpoint. It’s probably as important within our team as it is in any other within our organization. As our fans change their consumption habits, we are tasked with not just keeping up, but helping lead them into the next evolution. NASCAR fans are celebrated for being the most passionate in all of sports and their loyalty is unmatched. They continue to push us and rely on us to bring “their NASCAR” to the places where they are. That intersection point has changed so much over time. My 4-year-old son sat at his older sister’s dance recital this week and scrolled through my iPhone until he found the NASCAR Real Racing app. I didn’t have to show him how to play, but he was able to take Joey Logano’s car around Richmond International Raceway. He’s four years old! That’s important for our sport’s growth and we recognize that he’s probably going to change how he consumes sports several times over his life. We need to beat him there.
ON THE CHALLENGES AND IMPORTANCE OF STAKEHOLDER COMMUNICATIONS
KC: NASCAR very likely has the most complex ecosystem in all of sports. It is challenging, for sure, but I’m often surprised by the level of collaboration that exists with 250-plus individual stakeholders who all have varying agendas and objectives for success. We benefit from having the longest season in sports, which also means that we spend a lot of time together. That provides the opportunity to get to know one another quite well, but also to learn about each other’s business. We continue to get better at it and I think we’re better today at galvanizing the industry on communications efforts than we ever have been. Like many businesses, much of the success is driven by the people. Our sport is filled with very sharp public relations professionals. I’m fortunate that I can pick up the phone and call nearly every one of them. Regardless of who I’m speaking with on the other end of the phone, I know I can get his or her support on almost every communications conversation we have. Although there are also times when I need to discuss penalties with them and that can be a different conversation!
ON WHAT KEEPS HIM UP AT NIGHT
KC: I’m kept up by the opportunity I’m given to come up with the next big idea. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career to play some kind of role in developing new things. I’m driven to continue that and know full well that we have a team in place that can steer that next wave. The complexities that come from the ways consumers are obtaining their information are both intriguing and scary. I benefit from raising two case studies in my house who will grow up digital natives and who have simply changed the way I think about reaching audiences. My kids have never read a newspaper – not once. When we talk about reaching youth with programs like NASCAR Acceleration Nation, I know that it won’t be through print media. Some of it is very intuitive, but it’s driven home, literally, when you watch the way your own kids consume all things – especially sports.