College savings plan targets NASCAR crowd

The Virginia 529 College Savings plan is sponsoring a NASCAR race in Richmond, Va., on Sept. 11. Plan officials say it's a chance to connect with people who haven't always had saving for college on the radar. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Another sports oddity this weekend, this one in a more positive vein - a college savings plan sponsored a NASCAR race.

(Soundbite of racetrack)

Unidentified Woman: Are you ready for the (unintelligible) college savings (unintelligible)?

NEARY: It's a marketing experiment that could flop or open up an entirely new way to get a lot more people to think about their kids and their own education.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The Virginia 529 College Savings plan, the nation's largest, made its debut in the middle of a vast noisy parking lot at the Richmond International Raceway.

(Soundbite of race cars)

SANCHEZ: The group's sales pitch here is straightforward. This is about your future. College is important and we want to help you set aside money for it. Not exactly punchy or clever, but it attracts a few people.

Unidentified Man #1: You guys want to pick a duck and win a prize?

SANCHEZ: There's earplugs, a cup holder, or a T-Shirt, all with a Virginia 529 College Savings plan logo. You can sign up for a savings account for as little as $25. And if you do, you get a seat cushion.

Unidentified Man #1: Everybody wants a seat cushion, but you have to register to get a seat cushion, which is good.

SANCHEZ: The name of the game here is branding.

Unidentified Man #2: Step right up, Hamburger Helper. Get your free sample.

SANCHEZ: Hamburger Helper, Red Bull, Redman, Coca Cola, the U.S. Army, the Speed Channel, a Who's Who of America's most popular brands are all here, pitching their wares and people love them. The question is: Will NASCAR fans respond the same way to the Virginia 529 message?

Ms. VICKY BRACKEN(ph): Well, see, when people think about NASCAR they assume they're all dumb rednecks and they're not. So I actually it's a pretty good choice. Better than Winston or better than Marlboro.

SANCHEZ: Vicky Bracken has been to the Virginia 529 tent and learned that the plan is a tax deferred way to save for college. She's precisely the kind of NASCAR fan that Mary Morris is hoping to hook. Morris is the head of the Virginia College Savings plan.

Ms. MARY MORRIS (Executive Director, Virginia College Savings Plan): Part of what I think we're doing here this weekend is catching people unawares. You know, you don't traditionally think about saving for college when you come to a NASCAR event.

SANCHEZ: Today's race is still several hours away. At a picnic table between a couple of food trailers, 13-year-old Brandon Wright(ph), his young brother Colby, and their dad, Earl, are debating who the best driver is.

Mr. BRANDON WRIGHT: I thought it'd be Joey Logano for you.

Mr. COLBY WRIGHT: No.

Mr. B. WRIGHT: Who would be you, Jimmy Johnson?

Mr. C. WRIGHT: Yeah.

SANCHEZ: Wright took his sons out of school today to be here because they love stockcar racing.

Mr. EARL WRIGHT: Other than today, they'll have perfect attendance. They don't miss school. So, you know, it's just a rare exception to the rule.

SANCHEZ: Wright, a contractor, says he and his wife didn't go to college so he wants to see his kids in college. But it's really hard these days to put any money away for their education.

Mr. WRIGHT: My wife's unemployed and my business has cut back tremendously. So, it's definitely going to come a time when we consider it, but right now I absolutely wouldn't.

SANCHEZ: It's hard to say if Wright would be persuaded to start saving for college by visiting the Virginia 529 plan tent. In fact, it may be weeks before anybody knows if fans of today's race were persuaded. Saving for college is not an easy sell. In this economy, everybody, even NASCAR is hurting, both attendance and corporate sponsorship are down. Still, Andrew Giangola, NASCAR's director of communications, says the Virginia College Savings plan's decision to sponsor today's race is a good idea.

Mr. ANDREW GIANGOLA (Communications Director, NASCAR): The DNA of our sport is so sponsor-friendly that our fans have very high rates of awareness and loyalty towards NASCAR sponsors.

SANCHEZ: It's time for the race to start.

Ms. MORRIS: Hello, Richmond.

SANCHEZ: As part of their sponsorship deal, CEO, Mary Morris gets to start the race.

Ms. MORRIS: Gentlemen, start your engines.

SANCHEZ: Morris says people who run 529 College Savings plans across the country have called her and are dying to know how this sponsorship deal works out. She's dying to know if her organization's message has broken through the noise.

(Soundbite of racecars)

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

View this story at NPR.org

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