They travel the world to race fast, expensive cars past huge, empty grandstands while attracting little or no coverage in the racing media. Yet a great fuss is made over their “podium” appearances after a 30-minute race, with national anthems played and champagne sprayed. These are the gentlemen racers of today.
High-end auto makers with racing heritage all offer “customer racing” packages that include race car, pit crew, shipping from track to track for usually six events and even driving lessons. To take part in this travelling circus – which is intended to give a taste of life on the grand prix circuit – costs at least $500,000 a year.
It’s brilliant. Here’s a mighty revenue producer for premium auto makers that promotes the brand and supplies story lines to the faithful. Ferrari, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lotus and others have done it for years through “privateers” or racing shops that have a relationship with the factory. Now they also offer customer racing packages direct from the factory.
Audi is into customer racing in a big way, too, and, as the leading premium brand in China, it has developed an Audi-only racing series for its wealthy Chinese clientele. It’s called the Audi R8 LMS Cup and it’s the first Audi one-make series in the world. It began last year with race weekends in China and this year has expanded to South Korea, Macau and Malaysia.
I took in a recent event at the Sepang International Circuit, home of Malaysia’s annual Formula One Race, not far from Kuala Lumpur. There were 19 cars on the grid, all Audi R8s – the V-10 version (560 horsepower) – each fitted out as flat-out race cars; you can’t drive these home after the race.
Dealers sponsored four of the cars. The Hong Kong dealer recruited Aaron Kwok – a singer, dancer and actor who is the Michael Jackson of Asia – as a driver. The Malaysian dealer put Alex Yoong in the seat, a popular local racer who had a couple of seasons in Formula One 10 years ago. There were some semi-professional drivers in the field and the rest were rich guys with the racing bug.
It was eerie to watch racing in a major international venue – with a capacity of 130,000 spectators – with no one in the stands, apart from friends and family on pit row; but it didn’t bother the “racing customers” who gave it their all.
This is serious racing supervised by officials with lengthy racing credentials. Differences in skill levels were apparent. One of the “customer racers” listed only as a “businessman” with no previous racing experience seemed to be constantly bouncing off the walls. At one point, the first- and second-place cars (both professional drivers) were wheel to wheel around a tight bend when the “businessman,” a lap behind, spun out in front of them. No harm done as the pros veered around him.
Between buying the car and having Audi Racing prepare it, service it and move it from event to event, the price tag is €240,000 ($334,000 Canadian). Travel, tires and insurance will boost the cost to $500,000. Some gentlemen racers increase the cost by bringing their own racing engineer along just to make sure the Audi factory crew (the Le Mans winners 12 times in the last 13 years) is setting up the car right.
At Sepang, all the gentlemen racers appeared to be having a good time and believed they were getting their money’s worth. But let’s go back to the original point of marketing and brand-building. Audi is determined to hold on to its number one spot among premium brands in China – now the world’s largest automotive market. There may be nobody in the stands but Audi produces excellent race coverage – pre-race, post-race – on the Internet and on every social medium you can think of in Chinese.
How’s that for a business model? Customers put up the money, effort and recruitment of celebrities to race and then the “brand” webcasts it to the world. If you want racing heritage associated with your brand, then “customer racing” is the way to go.
By the way, Alex Yoong, the driver with a cup of coffee in Formula One, won both races at Sepang.
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