When the Pandemic shut down their biggest moneymaker, a family-owned business lended a hand
At sports car racing events around the country, you can usually find them just off the track, in the trackside vendor village or near the paddock. Offering a wide range of official custom t-shirts, hats and souvenirs chosen from over 3,000 manufacturers, Craton Promotions has quickly become a leader in sports car racing and event merchandising.
But when COVID-19 took the races off the road, they needed a solution to keep business afloat. The “Our Hidden Heroes” campaign was born to help medical first-responders working the frontlines, while helping business until the races return.
We spoke to Thomas Craton ’14, vice president of Craton Promotions, about how a business detour turned into a charitable success story that provided relief during this time of crisis.
Auburn Magazine: Did you know you wanted to work as an entrepreneur before coming to Auburn?
When I first came to Auburn, my plan was to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree and work in the sports car racing industry. My dad had a very successful promotional products and event merchandise business for 25 years before retiring. During that time, I grew up going to the races and other sporting events across the country with him. I remember from an early age going to Road Atlanta and seeing the LMP1 cars, and falling in love with the looks and sounds of those cars from the early 2000’s. Since then I’ve been a “Gearhead.”
What made you want to study in family-owned business while at Auburn? What are the benefits and challenges of small businesses?
The responsibilities are more and the pay less, but the long-term advantages far outweigh working for someone else. When you work in a family owned business, succession is a big part of what you want to invest in for the future.
The benefits with a family owned business [is what] you start with — in my case my Dad (CEO Charles Craton). He has been an entrepreneur and was self-employed before I was even born. What he’s taught me the most is “what not to do;” he’s experienced almost every type of customer and challenge in the business world, and has taught me how to navigate through them. The biggest challenge I’ve faced is, when I bring new ideas to the table, it’s hard to break the “well this is how I’ve done it for all these years”
How was Craton Promotions affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Our company was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic because our main source of revenue is created in large public gatherings at major racing events. Two days before our largest event of the year, SUPERSEBRING in Sebring, FL, [President Trump] shut down international travel; two days later, the race was cancelled. We have pivoted to online sales only, and have managed to create a new path forward in the short-term [while] also finding a way to give back to our community.
How did you come up with the idea “My Superheroes Wear Masks?”
While we have been quarantined at home and in our office, our medical community has been going towards people suffering from the coronavirus, and we all know what a heroic effort they have made for us, many giving their lives to help combat this epidemic. How could we use our infrastructure to make some difference while we were in this horrible situation?
What is the goal behind the initiative, and why did you choose to raise money for the CDC Foundation ‘All of Us Combat Coronavirus Campaign?’
Our goal is twofold: to thank our men and women who are facing this terrible virus head on every day in the medical field, they’re the unsung heroes of this. The second is to raise money for the CDC’s Foundation All of Us Combat Coronavirus campaign. We were looking for a charitable organization that would provide PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) directly and quickly to the medical community. The CDC Foundation provided that outlet and welcomed our help in raising funds.
Craton with Vaughn Gittin Jr. at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta in 2017
What has been the response to “My Superheroes Wear Masks?”
We’ve sold over 1,000 shirts and generated over $5,000 to this effort. Our local TV station here in Atlanta did a news story on our efforts [and] our community of Peachtree Corners, Ga. has helped promote our efforts and given us tremendous support on social media. I was interviewed by our local government and we have had tremendous support from large influencers on social media from Twitter to Instagram, which has reached thousands of people.
How did you first start working with NASCAR and sports racing events?
Our history was important to winning our accounts in the beginning. My Dad worked with the American Les Mans Series race series that was formed back in 1999, and Craton Promotions worked with them for many years. When I graduated from Auburn and my Dad and I set the business back up, he reacquainted us with Road Atlanta; from there we have grown to encapsulate all of NASCAR’s sport car division called International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). IMSA runs several sports car racing series, like the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship Series, the Michelin Pilot Challenge and several others. IMSA also owns and runs two racetracks: Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta and Sebring International Raceway [in Sebring, Fla.]. We produce and develop souvenir merchandise for both racetracks, their major events like Petit Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring, as well as track merchandise. For IMSA, we travel around the country to manage trackside stores for IMSA and the race series they run at each race.
Our primary focus is developing a line of products — apparel and souvenir items — that following current retail trends. We provide a wide offering of products from very simple, minimalistic designs to very art-heavy designs. Our company infrastructure allows us to travel and set up “pop-up” stores in large tents, as well as a merchandise trailer we travel with to sell directly to the fans.
What was the first race or event you worked? The most recent?
The first race I “worked” was The Big Kahuna when I was in elementary school. It was a motorcycle race at Road Atlanta. I don’t know how much work I actually did, as I just helped move inventory with my dad on the golf cart. The most recent event I worked was the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway in January 2020.
What are your favorite memories of working those racing events?
My favorite memory so far happened last year; while a race was going on at one of our larger events, two executives in the racing world sat down with my dad and I and just let loose. For those 15-20 minutes, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard, and realized that we’ve finally broken the customer/vendor relationship and became friends. They trusted us enough to tell us their true feelings on everything going on in the racing world.
As states begin to reopen and sports / racing start back again, how do you plan for Craton Promotions to return?
Since Covid-19 became a national pandemic, we’ve had to change up our entire strategy on how we sell to fans of sports car racing. Our traditional venues selling directly to the fans at racing was cancelled until the late summer.
Craton Promotions opened one of several stores at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2021
We had to change our fan “shopping experience” from in person to online. We have successfully been able to do that for this interim period, and are excited to know that we are going to be able to survive and get past this.
What’s next for Craton Promotions?
We have learned an enormous amount about the power of social media in our culture today. That has been a wake-up call to us — that the tools we were using were never utilized to their fullest extent and capability, and we have addressed that in a positive way to move forward in uncertain times to find a sustainable revenue stream. I am excited for the future.