The Quest for the “Holy Tenth”

The following blog story may have references that resemble the real-life circumstances of my actual friends and acquaintances…. which is unfortunate.

“Looking forward to coaching today” popped up on my Twitter feed. The tweet was from a young American stud of a race driver who has an incredible racing resume. A young unemployed race driver, except for the occasional coaching and OEM ride and drive gigs. What really struck me about this was that another young up and coming go-karter had sought out professional coaching to gain that elusive 1/10th of a second – that “holy tenth” – even though the coach himself had not turned that elusive holy tenth into a viable racing career. To me, this would be akin to a medical student paying for tutoring from a former medical student who ultimately was not cleared to practice medicine.

Yes, that elusive 1/10th of a second…. that “holy tenth”.

The feeling was – and still is – that this holy tenth will lead to race wins, Championships and of course; sponsors; funding; corporate backing; partners… moolah!

So…. as young drivers are coming through karting and into open-wheel cars or sedans on their ascent up the ladder, their ‘team’ will spend thousands in search of the holy tenth. Many before them – and perhaps even their $500 a day driving coach – have actually found the holy tenth, and yet they remain unemployed.

I think owners and team managers get all goofy in search of the holy tenth as well. Invest $50,000 a day for testing – no problem! Invest $3,000 to have your marketing person attend a sponsorship and networking conference? – are you nuts?

Here is a sampling of the types of things that team owners, managers, drivers, parents and other supporters have always been able to justify spending money on;

  • testing
  • new tires
  • a better engine
  • a new race car
  • testing
  • data acquisition
  • shinier wheels
  • wind tunnel testing
  • 7-post rig time
  • a back-up car
  • new driving shoes
  • testing
  • a new 4-storey, 3 bed, 2 bath condominium for your pit box
  • a new website
  • CFD simulation
  • testing
  • driving coach(s)
  • fitness coach(s)
  • nutrition coach(s)
  • psychological coach(s)
  • motor coach(s)
  • testing
  • new helmet(s)
  • smaller, lighter, more reflective mirrors
  • a bigger transporter
  • new radios
  • iPads of course – w/carbon fiber covers
  • and did I mention testing?
Maybe I can find the holy tenth during green-flag pit stops by having a crew that does Yoga and eats Oreo cookies.
Marketing coach or new engine?? Marketing coach or new engine?…. No brainer!! You can’t dyno-test a marketing coach…
It doesn’t make sense to reach out to sponsors if I do not have a cool place for us to sign the contract….

These pit side condominiums are critical to success. This photo is actually outdated as the new condos have an elevator and parking; reserved and visitor. This team no longer exists because they lost their sponsors. Was it because of the holy tenth?

Some drivers even hire a “manager”. This “manager” will make sure that all of the team owners know if and when their driver finds the holy tenth. And then of course, their “manager” will negotiate the contract, commission the press release and hit up eBay’s “Private Jets” section…. right after they submit their monthly retainer invoice.

Now, I certainly understand that there are parts of “the job” that are undesirable. Some racers do not like to work out. Others could care less about interacting with the media. These mandated autograph sessions must really be bothersome to others. But to even consider that a young driver should become a student of marketing?? That… is…. ludicrous. Sidney Crosby and Tim Tebow didn’t need to do no marketing….

Think about it this way…. Let’s take two 14-year old racers – who are equal in every way, on and off the track – and have one of them mentored by a team of driver coaches, and have the other one mentored by a by a team of driver coaches PLUS a marketing coach. In the long run, which driver will be in a position to a have a sustainable career – as a racing driver – in motorsports? (If you answered…. “the one who found the holy tenth” – stop reading…. right now please…. no, really)

Hey, it sucks that talent is not the determining factor in racing today. But, until the organizing bodies figure out a way to create value-based sports properties instead of these cost-based ones, that’s the way it is.

As for securing sponsors, ten or 15 years ago, it was really more of a sales function. You were packaging your audience as an exposure play and just had to sell it. Today, if you want to play the exposure game, you’re done. In today’s search for sponsorship, you need to understand marketing – not sales. It’s a big shift, and it’s complicated.

A clear indication that someone has found the holy tenth… look at all of those sponsors!

Throughout my time in racing, I haven’t been shy about telling young drivers and their parents that they need to understand, and invest in, marketing. I can say without exaggeration that my message was offered to hundreds of drivers. Very, very few paid any attention.

“The holy tenth will set me free…”

One driver that listened was James Hinchcliffe.  Back in 2005, James, together with his parents took my advice. Imagine the look on all of their faces when I announced that James was going to be the Mayor of his own virtual city. That’s another blog story, for another day; “The strategy and tactics behind the Mayor of Hinchtown”. Stay tuned.

“Of course you can change the speed limit to 300kph in Hinchtown…. you’re the Mayor”

Ultimately you need to become a viable marketing platform that employs racing, as well as many other assets, to sell a company’s products and services. So, yes, the holy tenth is important – there’s no doubt. Testing, fitness and nutrition are all critical to success. And great coaching is mandatory.

But, you must ALSO be a student of marketing.

So…. make sure you get right on that, as soon as you and your driving coach get back from testing.

“Hey boss…. If we buy this $4 gagillion dollar car wax, we might finally locate the holy tenth,” explains team manager person. “Get two goddammit!!”

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Racing Sponsorships Come and Go… but Twitter is Forever

In the mid-1980s, my wife, daughter and I moved to Southern California from Vancouver, Canada. I had a little office in a plaza and beside my office was a place that made ceramic teeth. One of the technicians in there greeted me one morning with a 4×6 photo of an open-wheel race car. An ex-Stuart Hayner/Wilbur Bunce Lola T320 Super Vee to be exact. He asked me if I wanted to buy it.

I didn’t know that I was in the market for a race car but apparently I was.

I only drove it once, but found fascination in the concept that this ‘thing’ could be used as a marketing conduit to sell stuff. My first sponsorship deal ever was with Circle Porsche Audi in Long Beach. I negotiated a parts discount for our race team in exchange for putting their logo on the massive rear wing of the Lola.

And so it began.

We moved back to Canada shortly thereafter and I gave the Lola back to the guy I had bought it from. Key word; “gave”. This would not be the last mistake that I made in motorsports.

I became consumed with motorsports as a marketing tool. I wanted to pursue this and did so with a passion. My ascent up the motorsports ladder was not unlike a driver’s. I started doing sponsorship deals in Formula Ford 1600s, then FF2000, Formula Atlantics, Canadian Superbike and more.

Creating an Indy Lights proposal for Jim Russell instructor Steve Wester in the early 90s got me into Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the rest is history.

The Steve Wester No Fear/Q107/Jim Russell/Big Brothers of Canada Buick March Wildcat

Fast forward to today, and I have to admit that I am disappointed, but not surprised, by what I am seeing in the sponsorship game in motorsports.

I think we are regressing.

There are some pretty common misconceptions that are still prevalent in motorsports marketing. We are a good 40 – 50 years into the business of sponsorship in racing, and we just should not be seeing some of the things that are happening today. We should be well past them.

Here are a few disappointing examples;

1) Run Good and We’ll Get Sponsored

Really? Do you still believe this? Ask Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse how they feel about that. How about Raphael Matos who has won a Championship at every level he has raced at – except the latest; IndyCar. Of all the misconceptions in the marketplace, this is the one that I wish were true. This is the one that fosters “ride buyers” and with ride buyers, the sport loses all credibility. “But Jim, as long as there has been racing, there have been ride buyers, and that’s the way it is.” I agree that this is the case, but the fact is that the best drivers are not ‘in the game’, and until they are, there is a credibility problem. But I digress…

Even SPEED thinks that all you gotta do is ask…

“Running good”, on its own, has never led to a sustainable marketing communications program. You still have to build on- and off-track strategies that solve business problems, such as increasing sales or proof-of-concept for your technology, as examples. Every single race team in the history of racing that has “run good” has lost sponsors. Seeing Roush Fenway and Penske Racing cars running around with words like “Roush” or “Penske” on them is all the proof that you should need. Last week, Kasey Kahne sat on the pole at the Martinsville Cup race with HendrickCars.com plastered all over the car. Not only do these teams “run good”, but Jack and Roger and Rick have a few connections and can get a meeting or two as required. They also have incredibly sophisticated marketing and sponsorship procurement departments. On the flip side, I could name lots of drivers who do not “run good” but have plenty of sponsors. If you think about it, they are also “ride buyers”. They are just using someone else’s money instead of perhaps family money. The companies that are buying rides for these drivers don’t care how they run. They have other assets that the sponsor finds appealing.

2) It’s My Passion!

“I love racing!”… or… “It’s my passion”… or “I just want to win!”. If you ever use words like “I, me or my” in your proposals, make sure they are followed with – as an example – “I only care about how I can provide measurable return on your marketing investment.” Or “My goal is to be a cost effective conduit between you and your desired client base”. … or… “This proposal is not about me, it’s about you.”  And if the company says to you; “Great!… how are you going to do that?”, your answer cannot be; “You can sponsor my race car!! Woooo-hooooooo!” You need to understand the challenges that the company you are talking to is faced with, and you need to know how to use racing-centric assets to fix that problem. You need to be a student of marketing and have a deep insight into how companies operate. Having said all of this, and to the detriment of most, there are drivers that get a ‘ride’ by running good. Every time that a driver wins a Championship and then gets a full-time paid ride, everybody stops learning about business and puts all of their focus back into “running good”.

3) All I Need To Do Is Tell Them That I NEED A Sponsor!

The icing on the “sponsorship is regressing” cake has been Kenny Wallace’s recent performance on Twitter. There’s no denying his passion, his sincerity, his accessibility or his desire.  He is what he is, and that’s why so many love him. But what he is doing… ‘tweeting for $$$’, is in my opinion…. ummm…let’s just say a step backward. Especially when you consider his tenure in the sport and his family’s influence and reach in the sport. Remember, his brother – and NASCAR Champ Rusty – had to shut down his racing operations because he was unable to provide a value proposition as a sports marketing platform for corporate America. Can you imagine the number of decision makers and influential people that the Wallaces have met over the years??

I think that Kenny Wallace will get someone to “sponsor” him. Someone will step up and give him $25K or $50K to say that they did it, get their hot pit pass and live the dream. But unfortunately, this model is not sustainable and it’s gonna end in tears.

Are there wealthy people that will spend their hard-earned money to support racing? Yes, of course there are. For the most part, they are called “team owners”.  These guys invented the well-known slogan; “How do you make a small fortune in racing? Start with a large one.”

Are there companies that could benefit from a well-executed motorsports marketing program? Of course there are…. but sponsoring you because it is your passion does not provide a sustainable business model.

Are there any companies left in the world that have NOT been pitched to sponsor a driver, rider, team, race event or series? I doubt it…. and unfortunately, most of those proposals are so bad that it will take many years, and countless success stories to get them to reconsider. Those bad proposals allow companies to actually have a written policy that states; “We do not sponsor racing.”

So…. what to do?

Become a student of marketing. Where do companies invest their marketing dollars? And why? How do they measure it? Who is their target audience? Once you know these answers, you need to be able to create a motorsports marketing program that meets all of their objectives, do so for less money than they are investing now, and with a measurably better return on investment. No problem!

Stop thinking that you are in the advertising game. Do you really want to compete with a billboard along the highway that works 24/7? Does a billboard have the costs that you have? Namely, a 53 foot tractor-trailer, 2 – 12 race cars, full-time employees and a rock star driver with needs? If you are playing the game by counting eyeballs, you’re done. Your program has to have a positive effect on every aspect of a potential sponsor’s business, not just some exposure metric where frankly, you can’t compete.

Stop looking for sponsors and look for value. Sponsors are everywhere. If there was a list of the Fortune 5000 (five thousand) companies in North America, my guess is that 99% of them sponsor something. You think that the only reason that they are not sponsoring you is because they do not know how badly you want to race…. and win. You are mis-guided. They are not sponsoring you because you have not provided them with a motorsports-centric solution to their specific business problem(s). You have not provided enough value. There are 100s of success stories where companies used motorsports marketing successfully. Study them. Find the case study of how Coca-Cola replaced all of the Pepsi (and other branded) vending machines outside of Home Depot stores in the USA. It is a fantastic, measurable success story that shows how motorsport was the conduit to a terrific opportunity for Coke.

Pull your head out of the sand regarding how hard this is. In the old model, all you had to do was show 3rd party data on your demographics, show your racing schedule, include a fancy graphic to show here their logos go…. and ask the simple question: “Would you like to sponsor me?” In today’s model, you have sponsors like Red Bull who are saying; “Your property (team, driver, series, event) does not address my business objectives so we will just go ahead and create, own and manage our own events and properties. We will also own the distribution rights and we’ll even go out and find other companies to sponsor our events.” This control over assets and audience is becoming more and more prevalent. And let me repeat…. they are getting sponsors – who could be sponsoring you – to sponsor them. They are taking those marketing dollars out of circulation. Does this concern you? It should.

The model; “Would you like to sponsor me so that I can win races and live my dream….??” is over. By employing this as your strategy, you are setting all motorsports back and closing the door for future opportunities.

Just stop it.

And for sure…. stop twittering about it.