How Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing are making a difference in Nascar

A team co-owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan will always attract interest from sponsors but, as Steve Lauletta, team president of 23XI Racing, explains, the chance to drive real change outside of the sport is also of big appeal to brands.

23XI Racing is a newcomer to the world of Nascar, having only made its debut last year. The team is owned by former basketball player Michael Jordan, with current Nascar driver Denny Hamlin as a minority shareholder. It fields two cars at the moment, driven by Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch, in a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.

While someone like Hamlin, with three Daytona 500 wins to his name, would be well known in the world of motorsport, the wider draw of National Basketball Association (NBA) legend Jordan cannot be understated. Not only does it drive greater obvious interest, but it also brings a different perspective from outside Nascar.

“[Michael Jordan] is a huge influence, he’s a huge fan of the sport,” says Steve Lauletta, team president of 23XI Racing. “It’s a different perspective, which I think is great for where we can help and work with Nascar.”

The most important thing for the new team is to gain a foothold in the sport, something that is not only helped by the involvement of Jordan, but also Wallace. The only full-time African American driver in any of Nascar’s three national series, Wallace rose to worldwide prominence through his activism to highlight racial injustice. It was that campaigning which eventually stirred Nascar to ban the display of Confederate flags at its tracks, which marked a small step towards a more inclusive future.

It is that message of inclusivity that forms the backbone of what 23XI Racing wants to achieve with its partners.

“It’s part of the mission and values of this team, and it was started by what Bubba did for the sport of Nascar in 2020,” outlines Lauletta. “We all believe in it and we want to make it a focus of what we do as a team, and our partners believe in it. The exciting thing for me with these initial partners is they believe in and want to be as much a part of what we’re trying to do off the race track as what we’re trying to do on it."
“Unlike other major corporations that are building brands, we rely on our partners to help us with creative ways to get our message out there of what the brand stands for, both on and off the track.”
Basketball great Michael Jordan co-founded 23XI Racing in 2020

Wallace also brought established brands with him when he joined the team, including McDonald’s, DoorDash, Columbia, and Root Insurance. 23XI Racing had Toyota supporting them from the beginning and, once Wallace officially joined the team, Dr Pepper entered the fray as well.

As Lauletta explains, these brands support 23XI Racing in their social responsibility initiatives. Dr Pepper, for example, has put its name to the 23XI Speed Institute Tuition Programme, which awards 23 students from diverse backgrounds with US$5,000 in tuition each. The goal is to provide opportunities for underrepresented individuals to learn about the motorsport industry in a range of fields.

“This was the second year that we gave away 23 US$5,000 scholarships to students of diverse backgrounds that wanted to explore motorsports, whether that be in engineering or on the business side,” Lauletta says. “Two of those winning scholarship recipients were interns with us this year, and they’ll be interns with us next year. Those are the kind of things that all of our partners are rallying behind and want to be a part of so that we can help change the sport.”

The team’s approach is unique in Nascar and could even benefit the series further down the line. Lauletta admits that the sport needs “to start attracting a wider and new fanbase” while also keeping its core product and audience in place. This is something that 23XI Racing have already made progress on and now hope that the sport at large will be able to follow their lead.

“Right now, our social media following is much younger than the general Nascar fan today,” states Lauletta. “[It’s] much more diverse and wider reaching in global markets that aren’t necessarily where the core Nascar fan resides today.”
Root Insurance was one of several brands brought to the team by Bubba Wallace

A large reason for this is the way that 23XI Racing have worked with their partners and drivers to position themselves at the intersection of motorsport and pop culture.

“We’ve got some programmes coming that are focused in a couple of markets with Bubba – away from the race track – to introduce Nascar to the African American community,” explains Lauletta. “We had Denny and Bubba in a Post Malone video. [We get these opportunities] with the partners that we have, like McDonald’s, the Jordan brand, and Monster Energy.”
Despite being less than two seasons old, having partners engaged in their journey means that 23XI Racing have “already started to make a difference”, says Lauletta. While the team is also concentrated on delivering short-term success, Lauletta adds that 23XI Racing’s long-term mission is something that appeals to brands.
“We certainly talk about our points of difference and why we want partners engaged with us,” he continues. “Not only through the traditional model of using a sports platform like us to promote their brand, but also this message of how we collectively make a difference and change the sport, giving opportunities to people that maybe have not been provided that opportunity in the past.
“It’s why a lot of companies engage with us because they realise that we are taking a different approach and it’s not just logos on race cars. We’re having conversations with companies that I guarantee you have been pitched Nascar many times, and they’ve never jumped into the sport. They’re back having discussions with 23XI because of our approach.”
McDonald’s expanded its support for 23XI Racing ahead of the 2022 season

In the future, the hope is for 23XI Racing to be known beyond Nascar, with Lauletta picking out the brand affinity of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) New York Yankees as an example of how high 23XI Racing are aiming.

“I want somebody that doesn’t watch our team necessarily for three-and-a-half hours every Sunday, but that they feel something for 23XI,” concludes Lauletta. “They’ll follow us on social media, they’ll support our partners, they’ll wear our clothing because of the brand.
“That would be a massive success down the road.”

Cian Brittle