If there’s an interesting issue in the modern era of GT-style motorsports, it’s the inevitable challenge of running “manufacturer” versus “customer” driven racing teams and cars. While nothing new, and while most fans of sportscar are familiar with the differences, the business philosophy behind an automotive marque’s involvement may not be as obvious to the casual fan.
First off, let’s identify the obvious: manufacturer versus customer driven teams. Most already know this, but a manufacturer, usually known as a “factory” team, is typically an entirely professional, spare-no-expense type of effort. Millions of dollars poured in to research and development, top-level engineering and mechanical support, topped off with the best available drivers. In the modern GT scene, a perfect example would be the Corvette C6.R program. Pratt & Miller Engineering, long known as the motorsport engineering arm of General Motors, performs the majority of R&D behind the effort. You will only find two of these vehicles in North American racing, competing in next year’s TUDOR United SportsCar Championship with a strong roster of professional drivers.
Customer driven teams, however, are driven by private money with much looser ties to the vehicle they compete with. The most famous example is Porsche. The majority of Porsche teams in professional GT racing: Alex Job Racing, Magnus Racing, NGT, Park Place, receive little to no financial support from Porsche, in fact it’s the opposite. In the case of all these teams, they literally purchase their race vehicles, as well as majority of spares, from Porsche. The team’s have to provide the majority of their own mechanical and engineering personnel, and the funding for all of this typically comes from an enthusiast team owner, or a driver who provides funding (or in many cases both).
The conclusion of this year’s American Le Mans Series on Saturday was, for many, the end of an era. With the ALMS taking part in a 15-year, fractious battle against the NASCAR-owned GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series, the already niche audience of professional sports car racing has endured a long-standing rivalry.
When both series announced their merger in September of 2012, the fan and media focus for the last 14 months has been on just that; how they’re merging.
How will they balance the technical specifications between both series? What staff will stay on, and who will go? What tracks will make the calendar?
In all of this, however, the debut of the 2014 United Sports Car Championship has had one point completely neglected:
This is a new series.
This is a new opportunity to brand and to market.
While the composition of the series is a marriage between two houses, the opportunity to create an entity that is completely new, and brand it accordingly, was not lost on one company.
We’re of course speaking of Rolex.
Much of the motorsport media, and NASCAR in particular, will look at the departure of NAPA Auto Parts (NYSE: GPC) from Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR), a relationship which has lasted well over a decade, as the ultimate indignation against the bereft team. With the recent race-fixing scandal ultimately keeping the NAPA-sponsored No. 56 of Martin Truex from contending for this year’s championship, it’s an understandable decision.
However, if you want to look at the business of NAPA Auto Parts in NASCAR, the real question is… will they continue in the sport? The future of NAPA in NASCAR will tell us a lot more about the state of the sport; well after Richmond has been forgotten.
Put simply, if NAPA chooses to run in NASCAR with another organization, then it truly was a perception-driven choice to leave the befallen MWR. However, if we fail to see the familiar blue and yellow colors in 2014, perhaps there are other factors at work in their NASCAR departure.
NAPA is, by all public accounts, a very healthy company. The parent organization, Genuine Parts Company, has enjoyed a steady and measurable growth ever since it became public. In 2012, the company boasted over $13bil in total earnings, and over $1bil in total operating income. 2013 appears to be on the same course.
What is curious about NAPA’s approach to motorsport, is the company’s very conventional use of the assets available to them. Currently, they’re involved in two high profile programs, one with the aforementioned No. 56 Toyota Camry in NASCAR, and the other with Ron Capps’ Dodge Charger in the NHRA Funny Car ranks.
The company makes a very visible effort to be adorned on both programs. Both cars run a very familiar blue and yellow livery that has, for the most part, been unchanged since it began. Both of their drivers, Truex and Capps, as well as long-time brand ambassador Michael Waltrip, are in a number of commercials that air beyond motorsport programming. Additionally, the company does run a few customer-oriented programs, namely their “honorary crew member” contest which places one lucky customer behind the scenes at a number of events.