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Conrod, Straight: Issue 6 - On the Rocks

31/1/2006 17:02 (Mark Jones) - History, never repeats;
I tell myself, before I go to sleep

Personally I thought it was a little naive, but the Brothers Finn were young at the time. So was I; at the time I couldn't even spell naive, but that's another story.

In motor racing, history plays a surprisingly important part. A large portion of this is the resonance of certain names down through the years, most particularly the car manufacturers themselves. While the Paul Roosí, Michael Jordans, Babe Ruths, Fatty Vaughtins and Yvonne Goolagongs of this world have come and gone, names like Ferrari, Maserati, Chevrolet and Peugeot endure.

In V8 Supercar terms, both Ford and Holden have long and evocative histories in the sport, inspiring a following within fans in the same way as football clubs; despite the fact that they are effectively a combination of corporate sponsor and supplier rather than an individual team. It's the ultimate form of sports marketing. As with the idea of Nike supplying tennis shoes to a tennis player, the sponsor can showcase themselves as both product and brand directly to their potential customers, rather than relying on the strength of a logo.

This is what has made factory involvement in racing, if not economical, then certainly justifiable as part of the yearly expenditure. However the law of diminishing returns usually sets in, as is seen by Subaru's involvement in Australian rallying, and Honda's Formula One involvement in the early 90s.

V8Supercars plays on a lot of history, recalling the 70s and the bygone era of Brock vs Moffat, and a simpler time of Holden V8 vs. Ford V8. But as a historical connection, it is as much perception as it is reality.

Ford's involvement during this basic 70s period of two cornered fights was minimal, with several other manufacturers spending more on the sport. Because of their association with GM, Holden were forced to deny every dollar they spent on the various teams, and yet today both they, and Ford, reap the rewards. It is a tremendously fortunate situation for Ford and Holden to be in. While long time servants of the sport like BMW, Mazda and Nissan are ridiculed, reviled even, they dominate the market in so many ways. While Toyota may sell more cars, the image advantage Ford and Holden enjoy is made of gold etched platinum.

We are seeing a shift at the moment in how this is being used. Men like Peter Williamson, George Fury, and Jim Richards built up great associations with their manufacturers, Toyota, Nissan and BMW respectively, through the sport. In a less competitive era, the combination of driver and manufacturer added vibrancy to the category through their long term associations.

Today, however, the association of a driver to the image of his team is disjointed. Long time sponsor associations grow fewer, and drivers change to and fro on a yearly basis. Many sponsors do not like change, especially those who get their drivers to work the publicity trail. Having to stop and rebuild the connection each year because the team has changed drivers, is both costly and time consuming when trying to use their sponsorship to build a marketable brand.

The teams are seeing a little difficulty in attracting big name sponsors to the category. Teams with as long a history in the competition as Dick Johnson Racing, now enter their third livery design in as many years. This year in fact the team runs without a major sponsor, and instead, is being used as a marketing exercise for building a group of Johnsonís companies.

V8Supercars in many ways has become a victim of its own success; it has grown beyond the reach of many of its old sponsors. The type of sponsors they now need to court, to continue the present running costs, have not stepped forward in great numbers. Truth be told, the sort of companies V8Supercars needs are the kind who don't see motor racing as an effective promotional arm. They see their sporting figures as individuals they can keep under their wing, or in the case of football and cricket teams where players tend to stay longer, because of friendships built up within the team. Loyalty to the guy standing next to you has been a powerful motivator, and allowed teams to keep a successful operation going longer. The Brisbane Lions by way of an example, had a stable team for around eight years, culminating in four consecutive grand finals, while in motorsport the pattern continues to shift.

The challenge in the coming years is for V8Supercars Australia is to do what NASCAR has achieved. To make every car on the grid a viable sponsorship concern; allowing drivers to build associations with sponsors to get the sort of returns the amount of money motorsport demands worth the investment. NASCARís great leveller, over the years, has been the format of racing Super speedways inspire. Denied that advantage, V8Supercars needs to find its own leveller; and it is this, as much as anything, which has seen the introduction of full field reverse grid racing.

Reverse grid is here to stay. People will queue up for miles to point out its shortcomings, but there are few options as effective out there for V8Supercars to raise the profile of the car that qualifies 32nd on the grid.

But that's just me I guess.

Release Date: 31/1/2006