Two steely-eyed drivers. Two untamed, unpredictable cars. Two narrow ribbons of asphalt. One winner. No margin for error.
 
That’s National Hot Rod Association drag racing: technology at its quickest, sensory blitz at its most excessive,  human performance at its optimum. It’s precise. It’s spectacular and spine-tingling. And the Coca-Cola Company wants another, bigger gulp of it.
 

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

With last month’s announcement that the global beverage giant will switch its branding of the NHRA Drag Racing Series from Full Throttle to Mello Yello, Coca-Cola did more than re-launch in auto racing the hip label that Kyle Petty showcased in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and the movie “Days of Thunder” promoted in the 1990s. (The brand had exposure in drag racing in the 1970s, too, as a sponsor for Frank Oglesby’s Mustang Funny Cars.)
 
What it did was revitalize the world’s most extreme motorsport with a jolt not of caffeine but of commitment.
 
Sharon Byers, senior vice-president of sports and entertainment marketing partnerships at Coca-Cola, said this new series-title branding will bring a more aggressive approach than the company took with either its Powerade or Full Throttle brands. Activating point-of-purchase displays, for example, is part of a clever marketing/promotional plan that signals increased leverage with the partnership.
 
“You’ll definitely see great activation at the track, which will be very different. But you’ll also see a lot of retail promotional activity that will drive consumers to the track. We’ll bring that passion in to make sure that the race events are exactly what the consumer should expect from the Coca Cola Company and the NHRA,” Byers said after making the announcement in Indianapolis on the eve of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
 
“There’s a ton of power in drag racing overall, whether it’s in market or outside of a race market, and our intention is absolutely to take this as broad as we possibly can,” she said. “We’ll pull in a lot of driver appearances. We’ll do some national promotionals, consumer take rates, take large customers — Dollar General [is] very interested in taking this nationwide. So we will do the power of Coca-Cola’s marketing. We’re going to take it to the finish line on this one.”

There’s a ton of power in drag racing overall, whether it’s in market or outside of a race market, and our intention is absolutely to take this as broad as we possibly can. – Sharon Byers

What makes this new phase of the 10-year-old alignment, one that will stretch through at least 2018, so significant is the deeper mutual promise to love, honor, and cherish each other. Said Byers, “It’s been a great partnership for years. It’s like marriage — it just gets better and better and better. We’re going to make it even better.
 
“It’s a win-win. We want to help continue to build the awareness of how amazing the NHRA is and the stars of the sport. The connection point with Mello Yello is going to be fantastic,” she said. “They’re incredible personalities, and that’s why we wanted to get one of our sparkling brands really attached to this amazing property.
 
“This is like a jewel in America,” Byers said of NHRA drag racing. “Just introducing people to the passion that the drivers have or how multicultural it is or female drivers . . . It’s Americana in every sense of the word.  Honestly, it is.
 
“That’s the explosion we want to go after,” Byers said of the sensory-overload entertainment package it has sponsored since 2002. “We want it to help them get bigger and bigger and bigger. That’s how passionate we are. We want America to see this amazing sport that we love.”
 
NHRA President Tom Compton expressed a reciprocal attitude. He skirted the issue that the new Mello Yello series sponsorship, at least for now (with no promise otherwise in the foreseeable future), does not mean increased purses for racers. However, he channeled the discussion to what the NHRA will do for Coca-Cola and the Mello Yello brand after the renewed-vows honeymoon: “The focus right now is to get the word out and create awareness for Mello Yello in the marketplace and serve our fans out there.

 
“Over the past 11 years working with the Coca-Cola Company and the bottlers, we have developed a deep professional and personal relationship,” he said. “Transitioning to a brand as powerful as Mello Yello is exciting on a number of fronts, and the vision the brand team and the bottlers have shared with us regarding their [marketing] plans will provide an extended reach nationwide for the sport of NHRA Drag Racing.
 
“We’re thrilled the partnership obviously is working for Coca Cola, and I can tell you that it’s working for us, as well,” Compton said.
 
Coca-Cola’s Full Throttle, the NHRA’s title sponsor for the past four years, will continue its involvement as the sport’s official energy drink, giving Coke a dual marketing platform. But Compton indicated that Mello Yellow’s demographics and, maybe more important, its  distribution will trigger more growth for both sport and sponsor.  
 
“The brand planning is still in the works right now, but as always, we’re looking to reach beyond the race markets and do things on a national basis, which we’ll now be much more able to do with this brand,” Compton said. “We’ll be doing much more activation around the races, and there will be opportunities to do things beyond the race markets on a national basis that probably wouldn’t be as effective with Full Throttle.
 
“With the power of the Coca-Cola Company behind us with the Mello Yello brand, it’s going to be a good thing for the sport, terrific actually, as opposed to largely being in convenience stores as Full Throttle is,” he said. “And again, they’re still going to be part of this program. Mello Yello is available in grocery stores, big box stores. The distribution is much greater, so the touch points are many.”
 
Byers agreed. “Mello Yello is a national brand for us, but we wanted to get a powerhouse property behind this property (NHRA). We have to bring retail communications into our customer base, and we really felt that the power behind the NHRA growing sport, it skews younger. Mello Yello skews younger from a consumer base, so it was just a really powerful connection point,” she said.
 
With its retro-’70s new packaging and imaging that came out in 2010, Mello Yello expanded its reach into the Northeast and West. That’s where the NHRA was especially helpful, as it has an even more diverse geographic blanket than NASCAR and more fan sponsor-loyalty clout than IndyCar. The NHRA races in every major U.S. market, especially with its inaugural New England Nationals next June at Epping, N.H. And Coca-Cola hopes to achieve the sales equivalent of that with Mello Yello.
 
It might seem like an incongruous brand for NHRA. “Mellow” and “yellow” might summon memories of Donovan’s hippie-tinged 1960s pop song, suggesting a laid-back stupor that decidedly does not describe the intensity of 330-mph drag racing.
 
Byers said a literal connection between those words and drag racing isn’t the point — the point is high-octane fun.
 
“If you look through Mello Yello’s history, when it was in ‘Days of Thunder’ and when Kyle Petty drove it in the Winston Cup [Series], there’s so much power there. It’s not ‘mellow.’ It’s not ‘yellow.’ It’s about having time with friends, about high energy, high excitement,” she said. “And that’s what we’re going to bring to life — a lot of high energy, a lot of excitement.”

We are the youngest sport in the 18-to-49 demo in the country against any sport. We’re the third-youngest sport on an average basis. – Tom Compton

“What Mello Yello stands for,” she said, is “basically having a good time with friends and doing things that you want.
 
“Mello Yello’s consumer base is a youth-based consumer group. The history that Mello Yello has had in motorsports really helped us tip it over the edge with some other brands that we were looking at, between the relationship with Kyle Petty, what we did with Days of Thunder. And we really wanted Mello Yello to get centered and focused on a huge passion point here in America,” Byers said. “The NHRA was a fantastic fit for that brand from a consumer base and just overall strategically.”
 
Compton backed her up, saying, “Actually, we are getting younger. We are the youngest sport in the 18-to-49 demo in the country against any sport. We’re the third-youngest sport on an average basis.” He said it’s incorrect “to think we’re getting older. We’re actually getting younger.”
 
Age wasn’t the only demographic Byers targeted. “One thing that’s amazing about the NHRA is it is very multicultural,” she said. “It’s unique that it has so many women drivers. That’s a very attractive piece that the NHRA brings to the table, particularly when we’re looking at the connection points with Mello Yello.”
 
As for appeal to the youth, Byers has to look no further than her 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, to recognize what is connecting the dots. Olivia tagged along with her mom to various motorsports events, and the NHRA touched a nerve in her. Olivia’s room is plastered with Courtney Force pictures. Mother and daughter tune in every race weekend to the ESPN broadcast. And, Mom said, “She is so passionate about the NHRA. We’ve got an up-and-coming driver in the Coca-Cola family.”

Image courtesy NHRA/National Dragster

 Her own home is the ultimate testing ground for Sharon Byers, the truest focus group. And with that personal attention to the NHRA and what makes it exciting, Byers looks to be the most dynamic marketing contact the NHRA ever has had with Coca-Cola. The excitement of the sport will shine in Mello Yello advertising and exposure.
 
Drag racers aren’t mellow. They certainly aren’t “yellow.” But today they’re loving Mello Yello.
 
“As we continue to help grow the sport of drag racing, we really felt like bringing in a powerhouse like Mello Yello would take it to the next level,” Byers said. “Mello Yello really offers to many of our consumers more customer bases, more channels for us to bring this amazing property to life. So we’re just really thrilled about the overall relationship, the history that we have with the NHRA, and the future together.”
 
Two brands. Two businesses. One mission. One strong partnership.