Johnny Lightning Strikes!

Impressions of the 1970 Indianapolis 500 and how they relate to 100th Running of the Event.

The 100th Running of The Indianapolis 500 is poised to be the most important motor racing event this year, a once in a lifetime fantastic opportunity for consumer brands and commercial enterprises to activate promotional consumer and/or B2B programs based around it.


As it nears, I recall my first Indy 500 from a fan standpoint, and relate it to what is coming up at this year’s race as it pertains to brands hitting a target market and companies looking to expand sales and brand awareness in the North American and Global markets.

Back Story

In 1969, the Johnny Lightning brand die cast toy car line had been brought to market by the Topper Toy Company to compete with the hugely popular Hot Wheels product line made by Mattel. The problem was, sales were languishing against Hot Wheels and Topper was looking for something to set it apart. At the same time, the Vel’s Parnelli Jones race team was seeking a sponsor for its driver Al Unser for the 1970 race season and had approached Mattel and Hot Wheels with a sponsorship offer. Mattel turned it down….

Topper was then approached with the offer and jumped at the opportunity as a good potential promotional solution to its languishing sales of Johnny Lightning products.

This turned out to be a master stroke for Topper, as Al Unser won the race and the brand gained instant and widespread national publicity, enhanced by driver appearances, in-store marketing, product licensing, television commercials, and consumer contests. Al Unser became recognized as the face of Johnny Lightning.

Al Unser poster Johnny Lightning 1970
The face of Johnny Lightning

A Win-Win-Win

This program was a classic win-win-win. The first win for Topper, as it capitalized on the race win and publicity and turned it into much higher sales of Johnny Lightning and a strong number two player in the market. The second win was for retailers, as the success of the program super charged the product category resulting in easily measured sales increases. And, finally, the third win for the fan (target market) which was me!

The Target Market: Me!

I attended my first Indianapolis 500 in 1970 as a seven year old. And, as it turns out, the perfect target market for the Johnny Lighting sponsorship! My seat was on the front stretch, close to the track. I thought this was a bummer until the benefits of this vantage point became apparent: Right in front of me prior to the race on the grid was the Johnny Lightning Special with Al Unser as the driver! To a seven year old, this was golden!

The Johnny Lightning car, along with the pomp and ceremonies leading up to the race, hooked me on the place. A fan was instantly born. I was totally impressed in an excited atmosphere with a fantastic brand targeted at me that was displayed on a fast race car. No more Hot Wheels for me! I was transitioned right then and there into a Johnny Lightning consumer. Shortly thereafter, I was at the mall buying Johnny Lightnings, lunchboxes, patches, etc. I remember all this as if it was yesterday.

Johnny Lightning lunch box
One of many Johnny Lightning licensed products


While the events described above were 45 years ago, some things are vastly different today, including the wide variety of properties and options brands now have to reach and influence consumers that didn’t exist then.

However, what hasn’t changed is the commercial situation 45 years ago is not unlike what one would find today. Companies compete hard against each other and seek opportunities to utilize various marketing properties to reach and then transition a target market into purchasers, gain brand awareness, increase sales, open new distribution channels, launch new products, and enter new geographic markets.

The 100th Running of The Indianapolis 500 should be appealing to marketers not only because of the uniqueness of the event, but also because it can be a big part of a solution to addressing the business challenges mentioned above.

Some key stats estimated for the 100th Running are:

  • 10 million North American television viewers
  • 100 million HH television reach in 200 countries
  • 2.8 billion Social Media impressions
  • 600,000 event attendees (through two weeks)

With this, companies can design activation programs around any number of promotional opportunities the race event will offer, be it consumer or B2B. More pointedly, they can be directed around any or all of its subsets that include race teams, the IndyCar series, drivers, and/or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself.

Geographically, it can be activated locally, nationally, or globally. In addition, multiple partners can be brought together to leverage the strengths of each into an integrated, mutually beneficial program. It can be with almost any product or service. The opportunities are limited only by one’s creativity and budget.

Pit wall Rush 40
Integrated Partnership between SiriusXM, Amazon, and Rush at the 2015 Indianapolis 500

And, it is a huge Event. The facility and timing of the race can be used by savvy marketers as a Pop Up event, a special “Day” (i.e., Prime Day, Cyber Monday, etc.) or a B2B product/service demonstration, product launch, or customer relations tool. The options are almost limitless.

So, I will be there this May at the race working in a commercial capacity, and I’m really looking forward to this event. I have started to see announcements of new to the sport sponsors utilizing programs for the race to expand their business development in the U.S. market. I have also seen some things on how existing sponsors will execute creative programs around this historic event. I applaud them for their foresight, and I’m looking forward to seeing their and others’ successes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *