It´s obvious what the companies supplying tires to the big-time racing circuits—namely NASCAR, Formula One, Indy Racing League and Champ Car—are after.
They´re hoping the broad appeal of these "major league" circuits will boost their brand image to the masses.
But those are far from the only racing games in town. There are checkered flags being waved in countless other motorsports—from longtime staples such as stock cars, road racing, off-road racing and drag racing, to newer fare like drifting and rock crawling.
And just what benefits the numerous tire firms supplying these circuits derive varies, normally depending on the type of race and the audience it attracts.
It can be as simple as pumping up brand awareness to something much more subtle, like trying to make a connection with younger tire buyers. Many times, the technology that wins on the track also makes it onto passenger and light truck tires sold into the consumer market.
In the early 1990s, Kumho Tire U.S.A. Inc. had a problem: Nobody in this country ever heard of Kumho tires. And its South Korean parent firm wanted to change that.
So it was suggested at the time that Kumho make a Department of Transportation "street legal" tire for use in Sports Car Club of America races, said Rudy Consolacion, the firm´s motorsports manager. While the SCCA does run professional races with "spec tires"—where all racers use the same brand of tire—its amateur races for its tens of thousands of members are looked on as true "grassroots racing."
Since its first involvement with the SCCA, Kumho´s racing program has enjoyed a good deal of success on the track. More importantly, though, Consolacion said in SCCA´s latest member profile, Kumho was the No. 4 tire brand in terms of preference. It trailed just the top brands of Goodyear, Michelin and Firestone.
"In the early 1990s, no one knew Kumho," he said. "The reason to get in there obviously has been effective."
Following that success Kumho has broadened its motorsports program to include the American Le Mans road racing circuit, Championship Off-Road Racing and drifting.
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. also wanted to widen its brand recognition with its most recent racing venture. But rather than North America as its target, Cooper is looking much larger—the rest of the world.
To that aim, Cooper became the sole tire supplier to the relatively new A1 Grand Prix circuit, considered a step below Formula One. The A1 Grand Prix is set up like a "world cup of motorsports," with competitors representing nations rather than just themselves. Teams for 25 countries began racing in 12 events in September, with a stop at Laguna Seca Raceway in California and the season-ender in Shanghai, China.
"The exposure is potentially very huge," said Jim Keller, Cooper vice president of marketing for North American Tire. "There´s a lot of money behind it and it´s a pretty neat concept."
Keller noted that television coverage of the races is available to 290 million households in 50 nations (in the U.S. it´s on the Outdoor Life Network). Cooper also will have trackside signage and dealer hospitality at three races—the opening race in the United Kingdom along with the events in California and Shanghai. The firm plans to introduce the Cooper brand in China later this year.
Keller sees the A1 Grand Prix as the "first true global motorsports series," and also said it was one of the highest circuits in which the company could participate.
"It´s a great opportunity to show off the Cooper brand around the world," he said. "We´re looking to move the Cooper brand from a North American brand to a global brand, and the A1 Grand Prix fit perfectly."
Variety of benefits
There basically are four benefits for tire companies to compete in racing, according to Robert Dole, Yokohama Tire Corp. motorsports marketing manager. He sees them as brand imaging; increased dealer involvement; strengthening an original equipment relationship; and technology transfer.
The OE bond is particularly important in the American Le Mans series, which is one of the few racing circuits that hasn´t gone to a sole tire supplier.
There, Yokohama works with both Porsche and BMW racing teams. "The ability to work with both organizations on the race track is a positive thing," Dole said.
Yokohama currently has some Porsche OE fitments, but isn´t OE or an approved replacement tire for any BMW models. Still, he said working with the BMW racing team may pay off down the road. "We´d like to be (a supplier)," Dole said. "And those conversations happen a lot easier with these types of relationships."
Yokohama will compete in six racing series in 2006, pushing its Advan line in road racing and its Geolander tires off-road.
Another benefit is the enhancement a brand can get from winning, said Todd Steen, motorsports marketing manager for Michelin´s BFGoodrich brand.
"The cream will rise to the top," Steen said. "You look at what segment you want to reach, and look at what they are following. The goal is to give them a reason to believe in our tires."
BFG tires can be found on a variety of racing circuits, from traditional and drag racing, to drifting, off-road and rock crawling. Perhaps its biggest success has come off-road, where it has a 20-year winning streak at the famous Baja 1000 and one competitor calls them the "benchmark."
"There are people who couldn´t tell you where Baja is, but they´ve heard of the race," Steen said. "It´s 1,000 miles of cactus and rocks the size of TV sets."
Hard to measure
While most tire makers say they benefit from motorsports, they also agree that it´s not easy to measure the benefits.
There are some traditional methods used, including counting the number of impressions, exposure time of the brand and putting a dollar figure on that. Many firms also look at sales right before and after a racing event and compare those with year-earlier numbers.
But often it´s not easy to pinpoint the benefits in this fashion, Steen said. "You look at how dealers respond to the message and how they´re getting involved."
For example, BFS is the spec tire in the United Speed Alliance Hooters Pro Cup series—a feeder to the NASCAR Busch series. Last year there was dealer involvement at a majority of the 30 races. It ranged from giving out coupons to having the dealers serve as honorary crew members and pace car riders.
"Now you´re using motorsports to create advocacy with someone who will influence what tire the purchaser will buy," he said.
And don´t shortchange the prestige factor, said Yokohama´s Dole. In 2005, Yokohama was the tire supplier to the Porsche team that won the GT2 Class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
"That forever puts us in the history books with Porsche," Dole said. "That shows that, given an equal chance, we can compete with any tire maker. When talking about measurements and results, that´s an emotion, but that´s a big deal internally and externally."
The track also is a great proving ground for such things as rubber compounds and heat resistance, said Chris Pantani, Cooper´s director of high-performance marketing and business development.
Cooper also is different from some of the other tire firms in that it tries to make some profit from its involvement in racing. They make sure it´s cost-effective before going after a particular series. Besides the A1 Grand Prix, it also sponsors the Cooper Tire Championship Series—a feeder for Indy-type racing—and supplies some drifting teams.
"We weigh the costs," Keller said. "Our objective is to continue to make money on our motorsports relationships while gathering all the exposure we can."
Steen said smaller racing circuits have one big advantage over the mega circuits like NASCAR and Indy racing. He said it´s the old argument of "quality vs. quantity."
At the smaller circuits, he said tire makers can reach consumers as they walk through the gate, rather than put up a billboard in front of 180,000 spectators where you´re just part of the background noise.
Keller sees the races as a grassroots way of being very personal with customers—to the point of talking to them about specific tire needs. "They walk away with a good feel for what Cooper is all about and what we can do for them."
Photos courtesty of Cooper, Kumho and Yokohama.