DEARBORN -- Why do we race? That question kicked off @Ford Online's interview with Ford Director of North America Motorsports Jamie Allison. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
Q. Why is Ford involved in racing?
A. We race because that’s where our customers are. We do a lot of research that shows that 38 percent of people who intend to buy a car say that they are motorsports fans. Then if we peel the onion a few layers down and ask people what forms of motorsports they follow, NASCAR is number one at 84 percent, followed by NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) at 68 percent. That’s why we are involved in those two forms of motorsports. Our customers are there. So we race because it is good business.
Another reason we’re involved in racing is that it is part of our history. Henry Ford raced a year-and-a-half before he started Ford Motor Company. So racing is in our blood. It’s in our DNA. Henry Ford used racing to help prove out his product and to attract attention. We use racing to help prove out our products today and we use motorsports as a forum to communicate the Ford story.
Our goal is to garner championships – to showcase that Fords are better than non-Fords.
Q: How did we do at NASCAR this year?
A: We had a very slow start, but how you end the season is how you hope to start the following year. In the last third of the season we won four races, and we won the last two races in a row. We started to qualify better, and win poles. And we were practicing faster. So clearly we had found our way at the tail end of the season, and we finished on a high note. We hope to start the year where we left off.
Our top three drivers – Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle - finished 4th, 5th and 6th in the championship. They were all from Roush Fenway Racing.
Q. Why is it important to be involved in NASCAR?
A. NASCAR has 75 million fans, and they are very brand-loyal fans who love Ford and follow our story. So NASCAR is a place for us to excel on the track and, more importantly, really showcase our products by displaying them at the events and endearing ourselves to the fans.
We helped introduce the new Fiesta in NASCAR. Traditionally, NASCAR fans buy trucks and Mustangs, but we wanted to make them aware of the fact that we have exciting, small cars that are fuel efficient. So we broke through and introduced Fiesta to the NASCAR fan base with a promotion called ’43 Fiestas’. We also introduced the V6 Mustang there by running more than 1,000 laps on a single tank of gas on one of the NASCAR tracks. That garnered a lot of attention and delivered the message that the new Mustang V6 is fuel efficient. We’ve also showcased the Explorer there by making it the pace vehicle for Ford Championship Weekend. And we used the 5.0 Mustang as the pace car for the Daytona 500 – the first time a Mustang or a Ford paced the race. These are all bright lights that you can shine across a broad spectrum of fans.
But, with all that said, you have to win because the fans are there to watch a great race. They see Fords racing, and it’s a competition you have to win. And we intend to win next year.
Q. What about NHRA?
A. NHRA has 35 million fans, and our research shows that there is very little overlap between NASCAR and NHRA fans. NHRA fans tend to be more do-it-yourself, hands-on people who buy smaller vehicles because of their budgets. But they’re equally feverish about watching Fords win.
In NHRA, we rule the roost. We have the king - John Force - and he’s a 15-time champion driver. No one else comes close. He was injured severely about three years ago and could’ve easily hung up his racing boots so to speak this year, but he didn’t. He fought hard and came in and won the championship, coming from behind. But the great story there is he needed another Ford team - Bobby Tasca III - to go out in the last race and unseat the No. 1 points leader, allowing Force to win the championship. So it’s a great story. It was very dramatic – two Ford teams working together to win the championship for Ford.
Ford is also the official vehicle of NHRA. We get to display our vehicles at every event, so it is one more opportunity to engage fans. In addition, all of the Ford teams use a Ford Flex to tow their vehicles at the track. So the Flex is a prominent vehicle at NHRA. There are a lot of families who attend NHRA, and having the Flex so visible at the races is good exposure for us.
Q. What is Ford’s role in Rally America?
A. Rally America is different. It’s a small platform, but a lot of fans follow it online. It attracts a younger audience, so it is a good way for us to reach Millennials. Ford raced the Fiesta in Rally America this year, and next year we will race the Fiesta worldwide in both Rally America and the World Rally Championship.
In Rally America, we have Ken Block. He won in Rally America once, but he also ran in the World Rally Championship in Europe and was the first American driver in 20 years to score a point in a race. Rally is the domain of European drivers and to have an American driver make an entry there and excel is quite an accomplishment. We’re very excited about that.
Ken also does amazing driving in the Gymkhana THREE video, and he does it all in a Fiesta. When the video was released on You Tube, it was the single most viewed video on You Tube in the world. After two months, it is over 18 million views. That’s not an easy feat to accomplish. So he’s the perennial online fan favorite of enthusiasts, and we’re ecstatic about that. What he does in Gymkhana are the skills needed to excel in Rally America. He turned the practice art into a social phenomenon. We are using that to help drive the image of Fiesta as fun to drive, exciting, cool design, hip and cool. Kids watch the video and grow up thinking that Fords are cool.
But we’re not stopping with Ken Block because the Millennial audience has to be hit multiple times. We have a rising star, Tanner Foust, who is a champion in many forms of racing – including drifting – participating in the X Games and we won two X Games gold medals. And that helps position Ford as hip and cool among the younger audience, and it allows us to showcase the driving dynamics of our small cars.
Q. Ford is also involved in sports car racing, particularly Grand-Am. Can you elaborate?
A. Sports car racing is the truest, production-related form of racing we participate in. We developed a Mustang with a body straight from AutoAlliance International. It is seam welded, has a roll cage added, and features a Boss engine. We build it and sell it from Ford Racing, but it can only be used for racing. It cannot be used as a street car.
Grand-Am is a series of 13 races that takes place at different tracks throughout the country. It is a grassroots, semi-professional series. There is no Ford sponsorship in this level of racing, but we support it through engineering help. And we do it to improve our products and satisfy the needs of enthusiasts.
Some fans sit and watch the races. Others are enthusiasts who actually race, and we serve their needs by developing a vehicle like our Mustang that is representative of a street car. More importantly for us, it reinforces the brand DNA of Mustang as a muscle car. And we use racing as a technology transfer and prove-out for our street cars. For example, the Boss 302 that was announced and revealed was raced almost for a full season (as the Boss 302R) before it was introduced and made available as a street car. So we learned a lot on the track. The engineers followed it and applied some of the lessons learned in durability and other extreme conditions and then made modifications.
We’ve been involved in Grand-Am racing for five years. We won the championship three out of the five years – the manufacturer’s championship, the team championship and the individual driver championship in a Ford. We did not win the championship this year, but we accomplished other goals – technology transfer and prove-outs to support the development of the Boss. That was our primary goal for this year. Product Development was involved with us and the teams gathered information, collected data, debugged issues and changed designs to progress the development of the powertrain for the Boss. Next year, we’re going after the championship.
Q. Is there a way to measure the impact Ford’s involvement in racing has on vehicle sales?
A. At all Ford Racing-related events to date this year, we have collected data from half a million fans. These are people who express interest in Ford vehicles. And we use that forum to follow up with fans later on to see if they are interested in a Ford vehicle. In 2010, we sent out 220,000 brochures based on customer interest.
BEAT research tells us that fans have higher consideration for Ford products and have higher brand affinity for Ford. So it really is a great audience to market to with the great new lineup of vehicles from Ford that they didn’t know about, like the Fiesta and the Focus. As new products come in, we market them to racing fans.