Gentlemen, start your engines! The green flag waves, and we're under way for round eight of the 1997 PPG CART World Series, here at the ITT Automotive Detroit Grand Prix at the Belle Isle Raceway --a 2.1-mile temporary street course, with 14 turns, 77 laps of racing, covering a killing 161.7 miles.
The field is lined up side by side on this very narrow racetrack with short straightaways, and they remain side by side down into turn one. This course is a tough one--it's tight, it's twisty, and the window for passing is very small.
The race is on.
Welcome to the PPG CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) World Series, the official league of open-wheel, Indy car racing. The sport has drawn such internationally renowned drivers as Michael Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. It's also rapidly gaining a reputation among a growing list of corporate sponsors as a way to conduct business on the fast track.
More than 400 companies, from MCI to Mercedes-Benz, participate in the series. With races held throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Brazil, and Australia, and worldwide television coverage provided by ABC and ESPN, sponsorship confers not just cachet but also high visibility--some 57 million TV fans, as well as an average of 150,000 spectators, per race.
With interest in the sport at a peak, a number of CART's sponsors have begun to use their involvement in the PPG World Series as a springboard for incentive tie-ins. MCI, the Washington, DC based telecommunications company, uses its CART sponsorship simultaneously as a way to entertain customers and potential customers, and as a tool to motivate its own employees. At MCI, "racing is an opportunity to create incentives and recognize the company's top performers in a venue that has so many different features it really keeps everyone's interest," says Craig Hoffmann, CART program manager and manager of racing incentives and recognition.
A Match for MCI's Corporate Culture MCI has been a CART sponsor for a year and a half (it is also the official communications company of CART). Almost as soon as the company signed on, it realized how well the sport meshed with its own corporate environment.
"We found a number of similarities between racing and MCI's culture," notes Hoffmann. "Obviously, racing involves speed, and that also characterizes the way we do business. And we have a very young and aggressive sales force that's highly competitive, just the way the drivers are."
Hoffmann kicked off MCI's first racing incentive campaign, a "Ride and Drive" program, in November 1996. "We set up certain criteria for our sales executives to meet, and our 24 top performers won a trip to the Miller 200 races at the Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, WI in June."
The trip began on a Saturday, when the winners were flown to Milwaukee for an opening dinner at the Pfister Hotel. The following morning, the group had breakfast with MCI's racing team. Then they went to the track, toured the pit and paddock area, watched the drivers warm up, and watched the race, a two-hour event around a one-mile oval. As additional perks, "we introduced them to Max Papis, the driver of the MCI Toyota Indy car, and to Mario Andretti," says Hoffmann. "They were right in the thick of the action."
On Monday, the group attended a class on racing dynamics conducted by instructors from the internationally known Skip Barber Racing School. After lunch, they were photographed with Papis and Leo Parente, another of MCI's drivers.
The high point of the day was when everyone was given racing suits and helmets and strapped into formula Dodges for a race of their own around the Milwaukee Mile. "They were a little skittish at first," recalls Hoffmann. "It was a bit intimidating. But they got out there, and they let it rip. They came back sweating, but they were extremely excited and they all wanted more."
The experience made some overnight converts to the sport. Hoffman recalls one executive who wasn't happy about spending the weekend at the track. "On Monday, he said, 'This has been the most thrilling weekend I've spent in a long time. No more golf for me--just racing.'"
Hoffmann has already held two more racing weekends this past summer, including one in June for 150 of MCI's top mass marketers at the Portland (OR) International Raceway, where Max Papis addressed the group. Says Hoffmann, "I heard people say, 'I've been waiting a year to meet this guy. I can't believe I'm actually here now.'"
And MCI has found another way to capitalize on its success with racing. "In addition to using Max Papis on site, we've taken him to some of our corporate meetings as a motivational speaker," says Hoffmann. "He talks about his goals--and since his goals are similar to ours, and he's such a successful driver, it's an excellent way to motivate our employees."
MCI's 1998 program will begin in March at the Miami Grand Prix in Homestead, FL, and it will have a new twist. "We'll have a recognition meeting at that race," says Hoffman. "My goal is to have an incentive, a recognition event, or a corporate meeting at every one of the 18 races next year."
With races scheduled both domestically and in overseas settings such as Japan and Australia, "it's an opportunity to entertain our high-end customers and our employees all over the world," he adds. "There are so many different things on site to take advantage of, so every program will be different, depending on where we are and what message we'd like to convey."
LCI: Everyone Can Win A Trip to the Races LCI International, a global telecommunications company based in McLean, VA, has implemented a variety of employee incentive and reward programs growing out of its CART sponsorship of an Indy car team, which began in 1994. Perhaps the most broad-based programs at the company are the consumer sign-up contests, which are open to LCI's entire employee base.
"All employees are eligible to sign up friends and families for LCI consumer services," explains Deanne Griffiths, manager of corporate sponsorship marketing. "Five sign-ups gets you a racing T-shirt, with ten you get a racing jacket, and the employee who gets the most sign-ups, up to 50, wins a trip for two to a CART race. That includes airfare, lodging, a rental car, spending money, apparel to wear at the race, and hospitality at the event."
It can also include an opportunity for real thrills: Winners get to meet LCI's driver, stay in the pit during the race, and have a pace car ride at the track. "I've been in a pace car that's gone more than 180 miles an hour on a straightaway," says Griffiths. "On a superspeedway pace, cars can go as fast as 240 miles an hour. You really get a feel for what a race car driver goes through."
LCI also holds monthly or quarterly sales contests in which the top 25 people to meet their sales goals for the campaign period win a trip to a race. Last year, the prize was a four-day trip to the season-ending race at Laguna Seca in Monterey, CA, which included all of the standard amenities along with dinner with LCI's chairman, H. Brian Thompson, and Andre Ribeiro, one of LCI's drivers.
"That was one of the best programs we've ever done with racing," notes Griffiths. "We did a lot of internal promotions with that--sending flyers, posting the standings." LCI even developed a miniature race track and gave each sales employee a tiny race car with their name on it, which they put on the track to see how well they were doing. "The sales managers really overwhelmed us with their involvement," says Griffiths, "and we far surpassed our expectations for that quarter for sales."
Those in LCI's three customer support offices--McLean; Dublin, OH; and Greenville, SC--who were not in direct sales had their own opportunities to get in on the action through race-team launch parties and drawings for racing gear. To further incent the customer-support people, LCI took Andre Ribeiro and its race car, the 1997 LCI Lola-Honda Indy car, to those offices," says Griffiths. "Each employee had a chance to meet Ribeiro, get his autograph, get a picture taken with him, and see his race car. We really try to capitalize on the races, and everybody from our chairman to our order processing and mailroom people has an opportunity to win."
Honda Stays on Top Of the Stats American Honda has also gained a lot of mileage from its racing involvement. Honda's participation in CART PPG World Series racing, and its use of the program to motivate employees, got off the ground together in 1994 and have worked in sync ever since.
"We went into CART for several reasons: for its promotional potential, to train our young engineers, and to develop a team spirit among our own associates, our vendors, our dealers, and our customers," says Tom Elliott, executive vice president of automobile operations for American Honda in Torrance, CA.
Honda's dealers are totally immersed in its racing program: Every Monday morning, they receive a one- or two-page fax recapping the company's race results from the previous weekend, including how Honda qualified, details about the race, and comments from the drivers.
"We divide the U.S. into ten zones, and each zone may have a race in its backyard," explains Elliott. "So each one will probably have sales promotion contests for individual dealerships." The promotions are divided into several levels: There are sales promotions that the dealer himself can win, others for individual salespeople, and parts-and-service promotions for service employees.
For example, the goal for parts-and-service people might be to achieve a certain customer service level or customer satisfaction rating, such as a high number of cars delivered with zero complaints. "The dealer might pick one person in the parts-and-service area to win this promotion," says Elliott. "As a reward, he'd get to be an honorary crew man for one of our six Indy cars on a race weekend. Although that sounds like it might be hard work, for the service people it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend a weekend with a race team--and it's a lot of fun."
Honda also awards CART racing trips to nonsales employees. "Our employees are always thinking of new ways to do their jobs better or more efficiently, to be more productive or to save money," explains Elliott. "We have an annual team competition throughout the U.S. based on quality circles. Teams compete for the best ideas, and the most outstanding ones are chosen each year."
One of the rewards for the winning teams is the chance to go to any CART race they choose in the continental U.S. as guests of the company. "This is a really big deal," says Elliott. "They get the full VIP treatment." Out of approximately 40 teams that made the finals, four were chosen. The winners were selected with considerable fanfare at a special event: a national conference of some 1,000 employees held at Honda's factory in Marysville, OH.
Honda is well aware that it has tapped into a sport with powerful allure. "Honda has been racing as a company going back to the late 1950s, so racing is part of the corporate culture," Elliott observes. "Racing really works for us. It's a quick way to learn and a quick way to develop a team mentality. And it's the perfect place for Honda to compete as we--and the sport--continue to grow and develop in the U.S."*