Growing up in Florida, Todd Wilson was certainly familiar with stock car racing and NASCAR. But it wasn’t until 1986, when a friend invited him to the Daytona 500, that Wilson got his first real taste of the sport. “We had special access to the pits,” he said, “and as soon as those engines roared to life and the cars peeled out for the first lap — I knew I was hooked.” Little did Wilson realize that three years later, as an EY Tax manager, he would be signing his first NASCAR tax returns — and that a decade later, he would be invited to join the legendary racing organization.
Wilson first started serving NASCAR as a member of the Ernst & Young LLP Orlando, Fla., office tax staff. At the time, NASCAR was, operationally, a small family-run business that “didn’t even do budgets,” according to Wilson. Then, in 1999, NASCAR began looking into the idea of consolidating its TV and media rights (which, until then, had been negotiated by the individual tracks). It was highly complex work. Realizing the need for a “different level of financial expertise,” NASCAR asked Wilson to join them full time. By now Wilson had transformed into a full-fledged racing fan. Seeing an opportunity to help “professionalize” a sport he was deeply passionate about, Wilson accepted NASCAR’s offer and was, literally, off to the races.
Wilson views the media consolidation deal as a “game-changing” event that helped unleash a flood of innovation at NASCAR, and has propelled it to become the world’s number one spectator sport. Today, NASCAR conducts 17 of the top 20 highest-attended sporting events in the US, and NASCAR racing is the second-highest rated regular-season sport on television. Perhaps even more telling, more Fortune 500 companies participate in NASCAR than in any other sport.
“Continuous innovation is crucial to NASCAR’s success,” says Wilson. As evidence, he talks about the organization’s new office in Los Angeles, created to give NASCAR a “fighting chance” of coverage in movies, TV and popular culture. He speaks of NASCAR’s state-of-the-art research and development center near Charlotte, N.C. He points out that NASCAR is the only sports league with an office in Bentonville, Ark., strategically positioned to help NASCAR market its licensed products to WalMart. And he mentions a newly expanded office on New York’s Park Avenue and the “smart marketers” there who recruit sponsors and help them gain maximum value from their sponsorships.
The most innovative concept in recent NASCAR history, Wilson believes, is the introduction of The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Now in its sixth year, The Chase is a 10-race shootout among the top 12 drivers (in terms of points) from the regular racing season. “It’s NASCAR’s answer to the playoffs,” says Wilson, “making more drivers eligible for the championship, and adding storylines and drama as NASCAR competes against that 800-pound gorilla — football.”
Looking ahead, Wilson says the next big innovation from NASCAR will involve the sport’s green initiative. “NASCAR recycles all tires, oil and lubricants used at the tack, and we’re now planting trees to neutralize the carbon produced by racing,” he says. He believes that as NASCAR introduces more green initiatives, it will be seen as a true leader in eco-sustainability.
As close as he is to the sport, Wilson claims to have no favorite driver. What captures him is the industry itself: “It’s the drivers, the tracks, the culture — just the magnitude of the entire event.” During his tenure with EY and in public accounting, Wilson says he got to see just about every industry out there — from manufacturing to law firms to publishing. But he claims to have never seen anything that comes close to the business or the “fun factor” of NASCAR. “The whole darn thing,” he says, “is just so cool.”