Paul Huizenga: Getting Paid to Race
When you’re in the automotive publishing business, one of the consequences of the job is that you often get asked, “how do I get sponsorship for my race team?” It’s a decent question – racing is expensive, and it’s natural to want help when you’re building a new motor or upgrading your car for next season. What I usually find, though, is that the racers have only a vague idea of what a sponsorship really is, or how to go about getting one. So, I thought it would be worth a few minutes to give a few pointers. Keep in mind that I’m no authority on the subject – there are a lot of people better equipped to answer the question than I am, and I can only tell you what I see from atop my ivory tower here at powerTV. Take it for what it’s worth…
- Understand what you’re asking for, and what you have to offer
When I ask a racer, “what are you giving in return for the parts you’re asking for?” I seldom get a well-thought-out answer. Sometimes it’s along the lines of, “Their part will be on the fastest Scat V4-powered Nash Metropolitan west of the Rockies!” That’s not a good answer. Aftermarket manufacturers are in the business of selling parts, so you need to convince them that kicking down a supercharger, set of heads, or even a box of lug nuts will result in them selling more of them overall. Unless having their part on your car means that other people down the line go out and buy it at retail, all giving it to you does is make one more that they DIDN’T sell, which is a bad way to stay in business.
With very rare exceptions, rockstar behavior is only tolerated from actual rockstars, and you are not a rockstar. Behave like an adult.
This fact, by itself, makes pure race parts very, very hard to get for free. If their entire business is selling just to racers, then there’s no advantage to giving those parts away to someone, especially if that particular part is essential to being competitive in your chosen class. You may be better off shooting for something with a street application as well, making the argument that winning with those parts will make guys with daily drivers want to run it, too.
For a sponsorship to make sense, you have to offer value in exchange for what’s being provided. It’s a marketing expense for the manufacturer, and they have a lot of different ways to potentially spend that budget, other than on parts for racers. You’re competing with print and online advertising, event and class sponsorship, and even the cost of going to trade shows, so you have to be able to demonstrate exactly what the investment in your racing team buys. Being able to say, “last year I ran at 12 events in two different series, had my car on display at four car shows, got a feature in a print magazine, and our plan for next year includes building a new car during the off season” is far better than, “dude, I will TOTALLY put your sticker on my car…”
- Have a history
In the Age of the Internet, everybody leaves fingerprints, but even so, it can be surprisingly hard to track the racing history of even fairly well-known competitors. Some racing sanctions are better about keeping records and making them available online than others, so it’s really up to you to be able to present your full racing resume. Team websites are good for this, though you have to spend at least the minimal time and effort to keep them up to date. Having a site with the last information from the 2009 season is almost worse than having nothing at all.
At the very least, Google yourself to see what’s out there. If a potential sponsor can’t easily reconstruct your racing history from the first page of search results, have something ready to hand them that lists your accomplishments.
- Use contingency
A lot of racers miss this one, but in some race series, winning drivers can make thousands of dollars a race just by playing the contingency game correctly. This is no exaggeration – there is real money to be made this way, and it’s an easy way to get an “in” with manufacturers. Once they are used to seeing your name in the contingency reports from the sanction, you can make the transition to sponsorship more easily. You can make the argument that rather than paying you contingency on the back end, it would be a better deal for them to simply provide parts up front. Of course, if you’re doing well, you may not even want to go that route…
- Be realistic in your expectations
It’s a tight economy and everybody has their eye on the bottom line, so for some companies, giving away free product even to the most qualified racer just isn’t financially viable. While getting an expensive part kicked down at no cost might be a non-starter, getting a “good guy” price or even something at cost is usually doable no matter what the company’s budget and financial situation is. The exception to this general rule would be things that are in high demand – again, there is little incentive for a company to let you have something at cost that they could sell at full retail to someone else on the waiting list.
- Find the right person
At every company, there is somebody who is the decisionmaker for sponsorship. That could be the owner, but in most cases there will be someone in the marketing department who holds the purse strings for all things parts-related. Becoming known and liked by that person is the key to having a successful relationship and getting sponsored. This cuts both ways, though – getting a reputation with just one marketing director as being difficult to work with, unreliable, or a pain in the ass will be a serious handicap, because in this business everyone talks to everyone, and even direct competitors often compare notes. Be polite, respect their time, don’t be a pest, but make sure that your proposal is being seen by the right person.
- Be professional
Yes, you are a badass, the untamed rebel men want to be, and women want to be with. You might also be the guy in 130 different Facebook wall photos, throwing the horns of the goat with a stripper on your hip and a 40 in your hand. With very rare exceptions, rockstar behavior is only tolerated from actual rockstars, and you are not a rockstar. Behave like an adult. Don’t have a reputation for wild partying in the pits after the track closes for the night, destruction of rental cars, or reckless behavior. Don’t go on Yellowbullet and post up a bunch of porn. Don’t badmouth your competition, and for God’s sake, don’t cheat or get a reputation as the guy who is always arguing with the track staff or race sanction.
Nobody wants to spend money on someone who is a potential liability, or who may turn around and bite the hand that feeds them at the first sign of adversity. Your reputation, in the end, is all you have to sell, even if you are the most winningest MF’er who ever walked the earth.
That’s about the best advice on the subject I can give. There are a very, very few racers who can break even with their hobby, and fewer still who can make money. If you can get a freebie here and there, win a few races, and get a reputation as a racer who is worth knowing, you’re ahead of the competition.