A scene from the “TUMS Fast Relief 500” at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)

This fall, students at Howard University and 19 other schools competed in a program called NASCAR Kinetics, a tournament that assembles collegiate teams to work on real-life marketing case studies. The best team wins.

It’s an unusual program, launched in 2009 as a way to seed interest in NASCAR (and, apparently, M&Ms) on college campuses, and to feed talented students into future marketing jobs. Experiential learning and internships are increasingly popular in the lengthening downturn, because they often lead to post-graduation jobs.

“We know that we have a challenge on college campuses, because so many of the other sports are part of the college lifestyle,” said Steve Sweeney, director of consumer marketing at NASCAR.

Five-student teams spent several weeks this fall developing a social media strategy for Michael Waltrip Racing, a NASCAR team co-owned by the namesake race-car driver. Student teams also arranged and hosted NASCAR “viewing parties” with seed money from the auto-racing company.

Teams are judged on the merits of their marketing campaign and on the success of the viewing parties, Sweeney said.

Participant schools are chosen for their size and proximity to race tracks. This fall’s winning team, the University of Central Florida, gets a trip to the NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Howard’s team won the Kinetics contest in spring 2010.