World Challenge Takes Positives from 2009 Season to Create a Vision for the Future TOPEKA, Kan. (Sept. 3, 2009) -- A year and change has passed since WC Vision acquired the commercial rights to SPEED World Challenge and entered into a...
World Challenge Takes Positives from 2009 Season to Create a Vision for the Future
TOPEKA, Kan. (Sept. 3, 2009) -- A year and change has passed since WC Vision acquired the commercial rights to SPEED World Challenge and entered into a partnership with SCCA Pro Racing to take the series to the next level. The revamped efforts to grow the series have come in the midst of a world-wide economic recession. Sponsorship dollars are few and far between, forcing race teams to pay their own way. But while such economic challenges exist, series leaders, buoyed by positive results in 2009, forge ahead with plans for 2010 and beyond.
They say Rome was not built in a day and the line holds true for growing a racing series as well. To keep things in perspective, WC Vision and SCCA Pro Racing began their journey with a five-year plan, keeping expectations modest for 2009. Back in July 2008, immediate items to tackle included television, merchandise, sponsorships and reducing the cost of competition in Touring Car.
Each of those items now has a check next to them on the to-do list. Event sponsorship is sold out for the first time in series history, sponsorship is up 35 percent, and a new, more economical Touring Car rules package was issued. The series has partnered with SPS Inc., establishing a merchandise presence at each event along with the launch of www.worldchallengegear.com. Additionally, Internal Combustion Group, a media production company, was brought in to re-vamp the World Challenge TV programming.
Despite these steps forward, the attention continues to turn to grid size. "Our teams and drivers are extremely important to us," WC Vision Co-Chair Bob Woodhouse said. "We aren't here to let any of them slip away. But as important as car count is, the financial influence on the series is less critical than our sponsors and fans."
SCCA Pro Racing President & CEO Robert Wildberger agrees. A veteran of the automotive and motorsports industries, Wildberger views the drop as a function of the sagging global economy, rather than a reflection of the series itself.
"The car counts are down, but not more than anyone else," Wildberger said. "The good news is, we have a very solid core of racers and they are staying right there with us. As we do other things to encourage racers to join us, the numbers will grow.
"If you look across all sports marketing, everybody is struggling to get through, with the hopes that we'll get a rebound. In time, a rebound is inevitable. We are not only surviving a tough economy, but we'll be ready to take full advantage of the rebound."
Two concepts introduced to strengthen car counts include the Porsche GT3 Cup Shootout and the new Touring 2 class. Each category offers racers an affordable venue within World Challenge to race a car they already own. Both WC Vision and SCCA Pro Racing have also spent long hours examining current rule packages for Touring Car and GT, looking for ways to bring the series back to a more accessible level of entry, while still providing the close racing and uniqueness World Challenge fans have come to expect.
One team drawn in by the new rules package is Phoenix Performance, owned by Joe Aquilante. The team brought a new Subaru Impreza WRX to World Challenge Touring car this season and mounted a brief Touring Car 2 effort with a Subaru Legacy.
"Last year, at the PRI show, Ken Tripkos [SCCA Pro Racing Competition and Technical Manager] invited me to come and listen to some things and I heard more good ideas in 10 minutes than I'd heard in 10 years," Aquilante said. "We started talking about different changes that could be made in the rules, things like that, and they surprised me in January when they showed me what they were thinking about doing with the rule changes. I said, 'you called my bluff, so let's give it a try.' So far I've found World Challenge to be very user-friendly and extremely reasonable in terms of working out what makes the cars equivalent."
In addition to Subaru, World Challenge welcomed (or welcomed back in some cases) several new manufacturers to the paddock this season, like Volvo, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, Lotus and Lamborghini. The new and exotic names add spice to a series that remains the most relevant racing around, attracting the world's most popular car makers and aftermarket suppliers, who want to showcase their products.
Rather than getting caught up in quantity, the series hangs its hat on quality, boasting one of the most diverse fields in racing. The growing variety of cars in World Challenge has positively enhanced the show for race fans. Not only is there something for everyone to root for, but the on track action has been incredibly close, owing in no small part, to the technical efforts of SCCA Pro Racing.
"One of the things that makes World Challenge so entertaining and so valuable, is that there are so many brands participating," Wildberger said. "With the different brands, you get very different types of cars and that is a huge challenge in terms of keeping the racing close. We face a bigger challenge than probably any other racing body on the planet. I'm very proud to say that everyone involved in it has done a heck of a job. In fact, if you look at the races, it seems like a nano-second is all that covers the top five in the field. That's quite a task, but again, it's all about fan value."
Woodhouse notes that fan value is a key part of WC Vision's strategy to grow World Challenge.
"My biggest concern is keeping and expanding our audience," Woodhouse explained. "We must not disappoint them. They have a lot of entertainment options in this hi-tech world. If we deliver top-notch racing and the drama that comes with that, then the series and teams will keep their audience growing. This is where the value is for their sponsors. But top-notch racing and drama are not always popular in the paddock. Double-file restarts and coin tosses may be trying harder than our drivers are ready for. We need to find the right balance and I think our drivers trust us to get it right, they know we are trying our hardest."
Rather than two one-hour programs, this season each Touring Car and GT race have been combined for a single one-hour show, post-produced by Internal Combustion Group, owned by long-time World Challenge announcer Tom Hnatiw. Getting it right takes trying new things, and recently, WC Vision surveyed the competitors to get their feedback on the broadcasts. Some of that feedback will be incorporated for 2010.
"The focus of the new format is entertainment value," Wildberger said of WC Vision's efforts to rework the TV program. "Obviously, at the end of the day, it's about bringing value to the fans and WC Vision has a very focused effort on that."
Aquilante thinks the new TV format has hit the nail on the head, focusing on the meat of the racing and leaving out the parts that often send viewers flipping to other channels.
"The TV program is a good package," Aquilante said. "People can say what they want about it, but who wants to watch 20 minutes of cars following the pace car around, or cars stuck in sand traps?"
With increased manufacturer participation, increased sponsorship, an improved TV program, a large presence on social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter, growing race day crowds and two hotly contested Championships unfolding, critics still like to float rumors of World Challenge disappearing in 2010. The thought baffles Woodhouse, who, along with the rest of the WC Vision Board, have invested their own money and hundreds of man hours into the future of World Challenge.
"How can you think that unless you choose to be uninformed?" Woodhouse asked with furrowed brow. "From the outset, we have been very open about our plan. We funded this project and laid out plans to stay the course for five years. That is the commitment our investors made. Can we predict the future? Not better than anyone else, but you might say we're betting on it."
Wildberger too, finds any notions of World Challenge going M.I.A. in 2010 unwarranted.
"We've got a great set of partners that have put their money where their mouth is," Wildberger said. "They love this series. We're in full scale planning mode for 2010, 2011 and 2012. To think that we're doing anything but forging ahead is groundless."
Wildberger sees synergies with other SCCA Pro Racing entities as an avenue for growth in 2010, grouping multiple series together to create all-SCCA Pro weekends. Tapping into the 50,000-member strong SCCA membership is another strategy Wildberger hopes to explore in an effort to create more fans and attract new teams. It's the route Aquilante himself took to World Challenge.
"Let's draw on our base constituency: the Club racers," Aquilante said. "Myself and my son and a lot of our customers came up through [SCCA Club Racing]. I'm constantly bringing new members to the Club who want to race their cars. There's a place for that small percentage of people who want to mount a serious effort to race professionally, and there's nothing second-rate about the paddock. You walk around looking at the semi trailers and the teams and [World Challenge] could go toe-to-toe with anybody."
Increased track time has become a more and more frequent suggestion amongst World Challenge teams, leading WC Vision and SCCA Pro Racing to investigate the possibility of busier race weekends while planning the 2010 schedule. Doubleheaders can be brutal, but are cost effective for team budgets and add more value to the race ticket.
"One of our drivers made a great point: 'fans don't come to the track to watch practice,'" said Woodhouse. "We're looking at options to address this."
More often than not, enhancements to the series have come directly from the teams themselves, as WC Vision has proven itself to be open and considerate to suggestions for improvement.
It's clear to those involved that enthusiastic leadership, passionate participants and loyal fans are pushing the series forward. WC Vision and SCCA Pro Racing continue to have their gaze set on 2010 and beyond, and they're looking past any critics suffering from nearsightedness.
-credit: scca pro racing