In the long history of the sport of NASC
That changed in 2018. In September of that year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, driver Ross Chastain won his first NASCAR race, the Xfinity Series DC Solar 300. In victory lane NASCAR experienced one of those rare firsts as Chastain raised a watermelon and smashed it on the ground in celebration.
It was the first time any NASCAR driver had destroyed a large piece of fruit to celebrate a win. Considering his background however, it really wasn’t surprising for Chastain.
Unlike some drivers who are born into a racing family, Chastain was born into a family of watermelon farmers from Florida; part of the eighth generation of his family to farm the fruit.
Since that first win, Chastain has scored six more victories across NASCAR’s top three touring series, moving the watermelon smash from victory lane to the track’s start-finish line. He’s even carried a watermelon during driver introductions prior to the race.
His most recent two wins came this season and were his first in the NASCAR Cup series and included smashing a watermelon at the start-finish line.
As Chastain’s star has been rising in NASCAR, so has that of the watermelon. All to the delight of those in the watermelon industry. That’s because in large part Chastain doesn’t get paid to promote the watermelon, it just comes naturally.
The National Watermelon Association is a non-profit over 100 years old whose membership is made up of farmers, and others in the industry from around the nation. The marketing arm is the National Watermelon Promotion Board.
Stephanie Barlow is the senior director of communications for the board. She points out that the association began supporting Chastain in his racing efforts around 2011. Though they really didn’t have to work too hard to get Chastain to promote the watermelon.
“It’s part of his DNA,” she said. “And we, as an industry, have supported him since he was getting into NASCAR first in the truck series.
“It’s thrilling that he’s with a new team and one that’s really given him the resources, the equipment, the team; I think everything to really be able to, to prove his stuff.”
For Chastain promoting his family’s product is something he’s always tried to do.
“Just knowing what that means,” he said after his most recent win. “Not to get too longwinded, but back to our family’s history, what has put food on our table for generations, to get to do that in front of let alone this crowd, but national, worldwide attention, is just all I have ever wanted to do as a race car driver, is help promote watermelons.”
Early in his career the watermelon industry was able to fund a part of the promotions for Chastain. But unlike major corporations which have seemingly unlimited marketing budgets, the budget for promotion is small, so Chastain doing it on his own helps the overall industry.
The watermelon is a commodity, not a branded product such as M&Ms or Busch Beer. The Watermelon Association, through the promotions board, must report to its stakeholders, the famers, along with others in the industry, how the sales of watermelon are trending.
While they have no way to measure an increase when Chastain wins a race, overall, the sales of watermelon, which are tracked via a report showing the number of barcodes that have been scanned, is trending up. What Chastain had been providing is the sort of earned media – media exposure that isn’t paid for – that other companies, and products, could only dream about.
“Actually, pun intended,” Barlow said. “That is a sweet spot for how commodity boards like us work when we don’t have a brand specifically that we are pushing.”
When it comes to the driver, Chastain doesn’t really focus on tracking his earned media.
“I’ve noticed attention on watermelon forever,” he said. “I work with different state associations, the National Watermelon Association, there’s a National Watermelon Promotion Board. We incorporate into safe driving campaigns, paint schemes whenever we can. So, I’ve always obviously had the attention to it.”
As for whether his efforts are gaining more attention to his family’s products, he hasn’t really tracked that either.
“I don’t know. That might be a question for somebody a little bit older than me, might know if watermelons have ever gotten this much attention,” he said chuckling. “I’m going to guess not. I mean, Gallagher, right?”
Chastain always takes the time to educate the media, and in turn the public, about the watermelon. A week after his second Cup win of 2022 at Talladega in Alabama, he was asked about the logistics of making sure he has a watermelon on hand on race weekends. He said that Roy, his hauler driver, is tasked with making sure a ripe watermelon is always available, and despite NASCAR racing most of the year and all around the country, it isn’t a problem.
“That’s what is so great about America and agriculture right now,” he said “No matter where you live, there’s no watermelons grown and being harvested in Alabama last week, but there’s watermelons in the grocery stores. That’s not always been the case.
“Roy’s learned to pick a good one and it’s three easy things; look, lift and turn. You look at it, it should be symmetrical. Lift, it should be heavy for it’s weight. They’re 92 percent water and the bottom should be yellow. He’s done a great job, but it’s been a bit of inexact science and I hope that soon we’ll have a better way to have better product. We’re working on that.”
Behind the scenes, the promotion board has worked to take advantage of the media Chastain is providing. They’ve changed their editorial calendars and are working to engage with more races. One thing they haven’t needed to do, however, is educate the driver.
“When it comes down to it, it’s watermelon, right? “Barlow said with a chuckle. “It’s a perfect product. There’s key messages that he’s able to get across that you know about ‘it’s 92% water’ and it’s’ hydrating ‘that hopefully get people to think,’ oh yeah, I do wanna go buy a watermelon; and maybe not smash it.’”
With two race wins in the Cup season, and with a number of races still left to go, Chastain is in the discussion for the season champion. The eighth-generation watermelon farmer from Florida may just be smashing some more watermelons in victory lane this season and has a good shot at one final victory lane slam in the final race of the season as the 2022 NASCAR Cup series champion. Bringing even more earned media to the watermelon and making an entire industry more than thrilled.
“If you’re a NASCAR fan or not a NASCAR fan, I could tell you that’d be just absolutely incredible,” Barlow said laughing. “That would make every person in our watermelon industry stop and stare with delight and amazement, ‘look at how big this has gotten’.
“I mean, there’s no audience as big as I think the NASCAR audience. And if he could get that far all the way he could go all the way, you know, we would, I don’t even have the word…”