Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Patron's global expansion

by Gordon Kirby
Ed Brown's Patron tequila brand is the Tudor United SportsCar Championship's most powerful sponsor. In recent years Patron was the most active and visible sponsor in the ALMS and enjoys the same role in the TUSC as the title sponsor of the four-race North American Endurance Championship comprising last weekend's Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the Sebring 12 Hours, Watkins Glen 6 Hours and Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

This year's Brown's team will run a pair of Honda HPD ARX-04b P2 cars in the North American Endurance Championship and the World Endurance Championship. It's a big and expensive job but Brown and his marketing people believe it will reap tremendous benefits in Patron brand awareness and sales around the world.

"My marketing guys told me we have tremendous brand awareness and exposure in the United States and North America," Brown said about his team and product's global expansion. "But they said we don't have the same brand recognition in all the markets around the world we've been opening up for the past four or five years. They wanted to know if there was a series we could go to where we would get that worldwide recognition and that was when the World Endurance Championship came into play.

"It's a good fit for us all the way around because it exposes new eyes to Patron outside the United States and it's a good fit for the WEC because we're an American team that can give the series relevance and a consumer base in the United States. From that standpoint it's a win-win situation for the WEC and for us but it's a big learning curve for the team especially with two new cars that we're still sorting out."

© Team Tequila Patron
Indeed, last weekend's Rolex 24 Hours provided a tough start to the season for Brown and his team. A variety of early teething problems got in the way of practice and qualifying and both cars ran into more trouble in the race. One of them dropped out early with a transmission failure and the other made it into the middle of the night before a couple of incidents resulted in sufficient damage to the car and gearbox to bring an end to its race.

"The team is used to me throwing them curveballs, but getting the cars late put us a little behind the eight ball," Brown commented. "We'll catch up, but after Sebring there will be barely a blink and we'll be at Silverstone for the first WEC race. We want to race in the United States and around the world and HPD want to race in the United States and around the world so we're going to get a mixture of both."

The Patron team ran two WEC races last year in Shanghai and the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, making the podium both times. The Shanghai race coincided with the formal launch of the Patron brand in China.

"We had begun a slow introduction into China but that was the official introduction for us there," Brown said. "We had a great weekend, a large number of guests and its was a great kick-off party. The great thing about the markets we're going to with the WEC is we've been selling Patron for a couple of years in most of them so we've got a starting point to really build the brand."

Brown's partner and co-driver Scott Sharp discussed his sponsor and team's expansion.

"All this started a few years ago when were still racing a Ferrari GT car," Sharp said. "We had an invitation to go to Le Mans and we always wanted to go to Le Mans. But we realized we weren't going to get the factory support that we needed to compete with the Corvettes and other top GT teams. So we made a decision to switch to P2 and withdrew our Le Mans entry.

"Since then we've always wanted to go back to Le Mans and that started our process down this path. The more we looked at it the more we realized the value to Patron in running the WEC. Patron's got a ninety-five percent recognition rate in the United States. Their growth is going to come internationally and a lot of the new markets Patron is expanding into have WEC races.

"So we said why not move the program we've done here in the US to an international platform with the WEC. We did the Shanghai race last fall and did some brand activation and promotion around the race. We had tons of guests at the race and it really went well.

"After that race we said it would cost a little more money to do the WEC, but it could be a great thing for Patron because most of the markets the WEC races in Patron has a five percent recognition rate.

"At the same time Patron sponsors the North American Endurance Championship and we will continue to run those races. Those four races--Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit Le Mans--also have iconic value. Those are races you want to win."

© Team Tequila Patron
Brown says Patron will expand the party tent idea introduced successfully at ALMS races to its WEC program.

"We're going to do some serious interaction with the WEC," Brown remarked. "We're going to have a Patron Party Zone at the WEC races that will open a few hours before the race and operate all through the race and for a few hours after the race. The drivers can then go and intermingle with the fans and we think this will be a good way for us to start our WEC program and get exposure.

"I love racing and a lot of people love racing, but I've always tried to tell every series we've ever been involved with that most fans don't really care that much about cars going around in circles. They might be interested in the first half-hour of a race and they'll get re-interested in the race's last half-hour. But what are you doing in between?

"I've talked about this with a lot of series until I was blue in the face, but the WEC actually got it. They see the thing the same way I do. It's an entertainment, a show, and their crown jewel, Le Mans, is a perfect example of that.

"We have to remember it's all about entertaining the fans and that only ten or fifteen percent of the fans are real gear heads who want to know everything and watch every second of a race. F1 doesn't have the fans because of the racing. It drew the fans a long time ago because of the racing but today it's all about the party and the atmosphere.

"F1 gets it. They put on a show and a party and they keep the fans entertained and other series are going to have to realize that's what they're going to have to do to survive. Sponsors need ways to interact with the fans and it's hard to get sponsorship these days because many potential sponsors don't see the return on investment and it is a huge investment when you get involved with this sport."

Brown says he was delighted to work with the ALMS and enjoys a similar relationship with the TUSC.

"The ALMS and the Tudor series have been fantastic as far as working with Patron," he said. "The ALMS understood what we were trying to do in trying to activate the consumer, but back when I was with the IRL they were stand-offish as far intermingling with and activating the fan. The ALMS was the first sanctioning body to buy into the concept. They were great to work with and Tudor has been great as well."

Brown also discussed his and Sharp's decision to race the new Honda HPD ARX-04b.

"We switched to P2 cars three years ago," said. "I probably would have switched sooner to the prototypes if I thought I was ready for them but I thought I needed a little more time in a GT car. We had also gotten into an argument with Ferrari about support and other things so that made it easier to go to the P2 car.

© Team Tequila Patron
"We were excited when Wirth Research and HPD presented us at Long Beach last year with the concept of the P2 coupe. It was a natural fit for us because we were driving seven year old technology last year and there would have been no way to be competitive with an open cockpit car.

"We're excited. We have a chance to win two championships in the same year and also showcase the Patron brand and the team. I think we'll be pretty competitive in the WEC. If you look at the two WEC races we did last year in Shanghai and Austin, we made the podium both times.

"It's interesting to see how competitive we are when we race in the WEC with light cars. In the Tudor series last year we won at Laguna Seca when we had one of those absolutely perfect days where nothing went wrong and the P2 car was really good at Laguna."

Sharp added his comments about deciding to race the ARX-04b.

"We had a longtime relationship with Honda and they whetted or appetite last winter with some early renditions of what this car would look like," Scott said. "Considering the success we had with a car that was seven years old in its basic design and thinking about how much more advanced a new car ought to be we decided to make the move to this car. We had a lot of confidence in Nick Wirth and HPD and we made the commitment."

The Patron team is still sorting out the logistics of running two cars in all four Patron races and the WEC.

"We're still finalizing the logistics of doing the WEC," Sharp said. "A lot of the teams from the United States that have done the WEC have tried to do it with weekend employees or day laborers. We really feel part of the strength of our team is it's stability and we don't want to be laying people off and replacing them with part-timers.

"We'll take eighty-five percent of our guys with us and bring in a few people from Europe. We'll have a base in England and fly back and forth and run from there. On a given weekend we bring 26 or 27 people to the track. We have 21 or 22 full-time employees including engineers.

"We need to get on the WEC travel program to make it efficient for ourselves. We learned from Shanghai that's is expensive to do it on our own."

Brown also discussed his views of where the TUSC should be in two years.

© Mike Levitt/LAT USA
"It all comes down to sponsorship and the costs for the teams," Brown remarked. "In think in 2017 from the prototype standpoint there needs to be one type of car and that's a P2-type car that a team can race in the WEC and Tudor series. There shouldn't be any confusion about what the specs are for either series so you can run the same car in both series.

"Another thing is when the time comes to sell a car, if it's obsolete it doesn't have any value. The TUSC needs to make it so the cars aren't obsoleted so there's some re-sale value.

"And the other thing is the markets you're racing in. What exposure can your sponsor get in each market? I think the WEC will tweak their schedule as they get bigger. They're on a pretty good role right now with all the factory P1 teams but I think as they go forward they'll adjust the markets they want to race in based on the best possible exposure.

"I think the same thing will have to happen with the Tudor series. Is it wise to race at Mosport? I don't know. Canada is an important market but maybe we should race in Montreal with a bigger urban market. We get great fans at Mosport and we got a lot of them, but it's not a high exposure market.

"All the series need to look at the venues they're racing at. The Tudor series got to be very expensive when you added a 24-hour race at Daytona, a six-hour race at Watkins Glen and a ten-hour race at Road Atlanta. And that's not to say that doing the WEC and a hybrid of both series like we're doing this year isn't expensive. But merging the two series made it more expensive for the competitors, maybe more from the Grand-Am side than the ALMS side.

"Any racing series has got to continually look at the costs for the competitors and the exposure value for the sponsors. Those two things are closely inter-related. If you don't get the exposure, you can't get the sponsors, and if you can't keep the costs down the team owners will decide to run only one car or do half the races or find something else to do.

"If you look around you can see some really good drivers who aren't getting rides because there's not enough sponsorship. Teams want drivers to bring money. I know a bunch of guys in their thirties who can still drive the wheels off a car but they're not getting rides because they don't have any sponsorship.

"So all that has to be addressed. Once this sport is in your veins, there's nothing like it, but it's also one of the most expensive endeavors you can do and one of the most frustrating too.

"I wear three hats as a team owner, sponsor and driver but I'm here to win in all three capacities. That's what helps pay the bills or at least justifies paying the bills!"

Brown emphasized that Patron's move into the WEC is a marketing decision rather than about any dissatisfaction with the TUSC's 'Balance of Performance' tweaks.

"People keep saying I made this decision based on the BoP, but that's not the case at all," he declared. "We looked at the markets and exposure. We'll go to Silverstone and they'll be a bigger crowd there than there is at some of the biggest races we race over here. The other thing is the fan at places like Silverstone get it. They understand the sport and that's because the press has put the story in the forefront and helped educate the fans.

© Mike Levitt/LAT USA
"But in the United States the problem is we're spoiled. We have every sport we want to watch available at any time we want to watch it.

"I've always loved the sport and it's pretty well-known that I'm the guy who put these two series together. I started looking at the ALMS a long time ago and I told the ALMS and Grand-Am that they both could continue to survive, but they were splitting the fans. I said to them, don't do what the IRL and CART did which was to wait until it's so bad that one of them comes and swoops down on the other one. I said let's bring both series together while they're still healthy and it will be a perfect marriage.

"I think they've done a hell of a job putting this thing together. You took two different animals, two series that were so different from each other. They may have looked similar to each other, but under the skin they were so different. So they've done a magnificent job of bringing the two series together and they'll get better over time.

"To me, everybody's responsibility is how do you get sports car racing in the United States to the forefront? I believe it's the best racing, not because I'm involved in it, but everything else is follow the leader. There's hardly any action or passing. A NASCAR race can be good in the last ten minutes but for pure racing, sports car racing is where it's at because you've got multiple classes.

"I think sports car racing worldwide is healthy, but it's everybody's responsibility in the United States to work to raise the visibility of sports car racing. I've taken IndyCar fans and NASCAR fans to a sports car race and they love it. They say this is the best form of racing."

Sharp added his comments about sports car racing's future.

"The costs are pretty large right now but I think Tudor is working towards the right combination for the future," Scott said. "But the series has got to become more viable and more able to attract sponsorship.

"I think for the right company the WEC is very good from the exposure element in major international markets and a worldwide television market. The WEC also generates a very much big event feel at all their races.

"In a perfect scenario--which you're never going to get--you would sure like to see a unified prototype class that in concert with the WEC and the rest of the world. That way teams can then pick the best WEC races for them or run for a championship.

"Certainly, we need less BoP in the future and the series needs a stronger TV package. Less and less people may be watching television but your core has still got to be a solid TV ratings package even if you have to go and buy time on network TV. You need that to sell sponsorship.

© Mike Levitt/LAT USA
"So the exposure element has to be raised substantially, and the final element is we've got to race in markets where the fans are. Mosport is one of my favorite racetracks and it draws fans, but it's just not in a big enough market.

"You've got to go to the places where the sponsors want to be and I think that means more street races or events like Austin that are close to big cities even though some of the greatest tracks in the United States don't fit into that category. I love Elkhart Lake and Mosport with their high-speed corners but they're so far out in the countryside that's hard to draw a big crowd.

"It's important for everyone to realize that it's not just a race anymore with people sitting in the grandstands for six or eight hours. It's got to be an all day entertainment and we've got to get to that point that's it's not just showing up to watch cars going in circles."

Brown offered some closing reflections.

"A couple of years ago a motorsports writer compared Patron to Camel," Brown recalled. "He said Patron was the new Camel and I said that's a hell of a compliment. I don't think Patron is at that level, but I'd love to keep on building this thing. For me, brand is crucial. There are so many laws today that stop people from doing this or that, but by promoting out brand in sports car racing it's made a tremendous difference for us. It's working well for us and I hope it keeps on working well.

"We have a big fan base and when we decided to include the WEC in our program we wondered whether we would lose our fans here in the United States. I think and hope they'll continue to follow us and follow both the WEC and the Tudor series."

It will be interesting to see how this year's adventure takes shape for Brown, Sharp, Patron and their team. Whatever results they may or may not achieve you can be sure Patron will be an important player in both the TUSC and WEC in the years ahead.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright ~ All Rights Reserved