By  on January 18, 2002

NEW YORK -- Drakkar Noir is an 18-year-old men's fragrance that has been around the track more times than some marketing executives can recall. Yet despite all the miles on its odometer, the Guy Laroche brand has just been given a tune-up and some high octane fuel by parent L'Oreal that has put it in the passing lane.

In an effort to bolster the brand's image, The European Designer Fragrance Division of L'Oreal USA has added a highly offbeat new wrinkle to the celebrity spokesperson game by sponsoring one of the most charismatic young stock car drivers on the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR, circuit, the 27-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His late father, Dale Sr., who is credited with building stock car racing into a national sport worthy of serious media attention, was killed in a race a year ago in Daytona Beach, Fla. His son is an accomplished rising superstar on his own, having finished in eighth place last year, his second year on the circuit, in Winston Cup racing.

So why is a French-based beauty giant interested in stock car racing?

"It's the biggest spectator sport; it's America's sport," said Jack Wiswall, president of the Designer Fragrances at L'Oreal USA.

Noting that NBC and Fox have signed a six-year TV deal to broadcast the races, Wiswall asserted that an average of 250,000 people watch a race and he further ticked off statistics, saying that there are 75 million NASCAR fans in the U.S., 40 percent of them women.

"This is a great classic," Wiswall said of Drakkar. "And there's a whole new generation that doesn't know about this fragrance. It will bring a whole new life to this brand."

Indeed, it certainly seems to have staying power. Despite a lack of advertising support for at least seven years and occasional complaints from retailers about a leakage of product into the gray market, Drakkar has remained in the top 15 of men's brands, according to Wiswall.

He refused to break out sales or advertising budgets, but industry sources estimate that Drakkar Noir still does a retail volume in excess of $50 million in the U.S. in 2,200 doors.

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