From Hollywood to Victory Lane, Mello Yello broke the mold in NASCAR
With NASCAR and teams rolling back the clock for the retro weekend at Darlington Raceway, the excitement is building to see the throwback paint schemes on the historic track.
One of the most anticipated retro paint schemes is that of Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet. Larson’s ride this weekend will go back to the iconic Mello Yello colors made famous in the movie "Days of Thunder" and then by Kyle Petty from 1991 through 1994.
The famous paint scheme became instantly recognizable after appearing in the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film, and then was a mainstay in the Sprint Cup Series as Petty took the colors to Victory Lane five times.
While the Mello Yello colors were some of the most recognizable of the early 1990s, the original paint scheme required a bit of work behind the scenes and was the brainchild of former Coca-Cola director of sports, Hal Price.
Prior to Coca-Cola, Price worked with Miller Brewing Co. to help the NASCAR marketing push behind drivers Bobby Allison and Bobby Hillin Jr. in the 1980s. In 1989, he made the move to Coca-Cola, and the ball really got rolling.
Shortly after making the transition, Price and his team received a script of "Days of Thunder." Hardee’s was involved in the film as one of the car’s sponsors, and the fast food chain suggested the filmmakers ask Coca-Cola to serve as the sponsor of rookie driver Cole Trickle.
While the idea of sponsoring an unknown rookie driver — albeit fictional — did not fit the Coca-Cola brand, Price saw an opportunity with Mello Yello.
"We had no market share for Mello Yello," Price told FOXSports.com. "We were getting our butt kicked by Mountain Dew. There was nothing we could do to mess the brand up."
Prior to the brand’s involvement in NASCAR, Mello Yello commercials featured cowboys, Earnest P. Worrell and professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes. By partnering with "Days of Thunder," the image of Mello Yello was broadened dramatically.
Content with being a part of the film, Coca-Cola was pleased with their Mello Yello efforts, but Price knew there could be more. His experience with Miller Brewing Co. taught him that if Mello Yello could become even more involved in the sport, the brand could continue to grow.
During a trip to Talladega Speedway, Price spoke with 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, Darrell Waltrip and Alan Kulwicki as potential drivers Mello Yello could support. However, Price found his answer in third-generation driver Kyle Petty and his Felix Sabates Racing team.
"Pepsi had an association with Richard, so Mello Yello went after Kyle," Price recalled, saying Kyle was trying to break out of his famous father’s shadow, and was an alternative personality and perfect fit for the brand.
Price admitted Coca-Cola was concerned about putting all of its eggs in the basket of one driver by sponsoring Petty’s No. 42, as opposed to sponsoring a race — as it had done with the Coca-Cola 600 and the Mello Yello 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. However, teaming with Petty opened the door to a host of other opportunities for the brand.
"This gave us the opportunity to put retailers on the cars and opened up possibilities for hospitality," said Price. "It was huge growth for us and an honor to work with Kyle. That was the beginning for us to know Coke belonged in racing, as opposed to just a title sponsor. Mello Yello really set the stage for where all of Coke’s brands were able to grow."
Much of the brand’s growth came about due to the car’s appealing look and bright colors, contrasted with the dark base color.
"It was one of the first cars that really captured a new image of how colorful and catching the cars could be," said Price. "It really took it to a whole new level. The combination of the movie, the Day-Glo colors, the on-track success all brought back both the hardcore fans and a new generation of people that found a little more drama in the sport. The marketing, the colors, the designs, it all came together at the right time."
Price pointed out their moves opened the door for other companies — such as fast food restaurants such as Hardees and McDonald’s — to see the potential in NASCAR and turn the sport’s marketing efforts toward a more consumer-facing push.
"Those were the days when we really started to develop a real following outside of the blue collar southeast," he said.
After working with Petty and Mello Yello, Price helped bring Jeff Gordon to Coca-Cola and worked closely with Adam Petty, Kyle’s son. Price admits his heart "really left the sport for awhile" after Adam lost his life in 2000 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Now working outside the sport, Price was not even aware of the throwback push ahead of this weekend’s race, but he loves the concept.
"What a great idea," he said. "It’s a great way for the sport to tell stories and connect with the core fans."
— Kyle Petty (@kylepetty) September 3, 2015