SUSAN WADE - LET’S HAVE THAT UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATION
“Hi! Thanks for being here! Come on in, have a seat, and make yourself uncomfortable.”
If Tami Powers, director of business development/operations at Alan Johnson Racing, could gather team owners, sponsorship-procurement specialists, and the NHRA marketing department and top executives, that’s probably how she would greet them at the door.
She has rebounded from the heart-sinking disappointment of an impressively innovative Top Fuel deal for Ashley Sanford that imploded on the threshold of the season-opener. Her experience and observations tell her something in drag racing’s business model is broken. But her intuition also tells her the problem is fixable.
Powers says she simply wants the sanctioning body to view this critical process through a new prism, with a commitment to an effective customer-service approach, and in a spirit of support to race teams.
“All these things I’m saying have nothing to do with Alan Johnson and everything to do with my experience over the last three and a half years being out here, huffing and puffing and meetings and proposals and board meetings and Ashley and I running all over Hell and back,” she says.
The facts, she asserts, are that “there’s something amiss. There’s something broken. The NHRA needs the racers, and the racers need the NHRA. There’s plenty of things the NHRA does well, and there’s plenty of things they’re not doing well. We as teams are always looking for ways to save money and have the sport be safer, and the NHRA does the same thing. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts of things, for whatever reason, major brands don’t buy into the NHRA. We have to come together collectively and figure out how to stimulate the consumer brand market together and come up with some solutions and start bringing mainstream brands into this sport.
“This is not coming from me. This is coming from others. This is the feedback I’m getting. I don’t want a vitriolic relationship with the NHRA. That’s not the goal here. The goal is to come together collectively and talk about the hard stuff, have the difficult conversation, have those meetings. They need to happen,” Powers says.
She contends that “it’s all about egos, male and female. There’s no gender divide there. We’ve got to stop this. We’ve got to stop the North Korea-South Korea mentality when it comes to the egos in this sport. We’re competitive people . . . but the sanctioning body has to be diplomatic. It has to listen to both sides. They have to solve problems. They don’t care.
“It all comes down to people don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations. They don’t want to talk about the problems. They don’t want to come together. They don’t want to leave their comfort zone of their redundant status quo. And it’s so obvious to everybody. It’s frustrating,” Powers says.
“I love this sport. It’s all I’ve known in my career. My entire career has been invested into this sport because I love it. It rocks my frickin’ soul. It’s the most beautiful feeling in the world, being at that racetrack,” she says. “And it’s so sad to me that there’s so many of us who are so limited based on solvable problems – preventable problems and solvable problems. It’s disheartening.”
She alludes to data that she says shows that drag-racing fans “are more educated. They make more money than NASCAR fans. The demographics are better for consumer purchasing than [with] NASCAR. Our fans are more educated, and they earn more money – and they spend more money. They have more cars per family. They spend more money on groceries. And they consume more electronics, cell phones, iPads, computers, and video games. And we’ve got nothing on our platform that shows that data. We have nothing.”
NASCAR, for example, has such household-name consumer brands as Bass Pro Shops, Dow, FedEx, GEICO, Hooters, Jimmy John’s, Kroger, McDonald’s, Menard’s, Nationwide, Oscar Mayer, Reser’s Fine Foods, Skittles, and Sunny D. Among the recognizable names of corporations that sponsor IndyCar teams are AutoNation, Bell Helicopter, BMW, Bosch, Cessna, Cintas, Crown Royal, Curb Records, Hitachi, PNC, 7-Eleven, Sirius XM Radio, United States Air Force, Valpak, and Verizon.
Says Powers, “Our sport does not have an official beer since Budweiser left. How is that even remotely possible? How is it that there isn’t a beer brand in this entire country, [with] the billions and billions and billions of dollars that consumers are spending on beer, how is it that we don’t have an official beer? How is it that we don’t have a beer war going on? How do we not have an official wireless carrier? How do we not have an official this and that and the other? You have automotive[-industry sponsors]. But when I look out into the stands, I see a slew of people who are consumers. And they consume everything and consume more than automotive parts and motor oil. Why isn’t there a FedEx car? A UPS car? An M&Ms car?
“Why isn’t Bass Pro Shops or Cabela’s in our sport? The highest index point we have demographically is outdoor activities – hunting, fishing, ATVs. Do you know how many brands are associated with hunting and fishing and outdoor activities? We don’t have Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s or any of their competing brands. We don’t have any of that. They’re nowhere to be found in our sport,” she says. “That goes right along with not having an official beer. We need to be knocking down doors of all these huge beer brands.”
Clay Millican crew chief Mike Kloeber has said of Kenny Bernstein’s 30-plus-year operation, “This is what right looks like.” And Powers would concur, saying the NHRA could use some of Bernstein’s hustle today.
“We need to be talking to [these corporations] every single day,” she says. “We need to be in New York, pulling up a Top Fuel dragster, like Kenny Bernstein did [at St. Louis to secure his longtime relationship with Budweiser] and light that sucker up on Madison Avenue if we have to. And I don’t see anybody doing that.
“You’ve got to reach these people. You’ve got to razzle-dazzle them, because there’s a lot of clutter out there. There’s a lot of sports and a lot of competition. The NHRA needs to compete and go up to the line like those Top Fuel cars do. They need to go up to the line against other sports and shout from the rooftops why these brands should be buying into our sport,” Powers says.
“We’re the only motorsports right now that has consistently over the last three or four years had incremental growth in attendance and [TV] viewership. If you saw the Bristol [NASCAR] race, there was nobody there. They showed a picture [from a recent year] of when you couldn’t get a ticket to that race and they were scalping them for $400-500.
“It’s all about relationships. It’s all about making the person who’s investing millions of dollars into a platform feel welcome. It’s all about forming that relationship. It’s about giving them bang for their buck. It’s about giving them return on investment. It’s about relationships,” she says, troubled when she hears in the turn-downs she and others receive “from these people who hold the keys to these brands” the sentiment that “Well, the NHRA’s kind of in its own little bubble.”
While Powers, on one hand, would like to burst that bubble (“If I offend their marketing department, so be it”), she wants more so to work with the sanctioning body to improve the environment.
“We need them. They need us. Right now, the ‘us’ is depleted. We don’t have enough cars out there in Top Fuel. The top class in our sport doesn’t have enough cars to fill the field. That’s a fact,” she says.
“On a positive note, back in the day, [companies] were calling and asking, ‘What teams do you have to present to us? We want to come in.’ And that is the day when both sides win. So how do we get there? I don’t want to sit here and complain about the NHRA. I think they’re super-desensitized to a lot of this stuff. I’m not saying this to complain about them. I want to find solutions,” she says. “I want to be able to come together at the table. People like Tony Schumacher and people like Ashley Sanford and people like Alex Laughlin and people like Brandon Welch and Cameron Ferre and all these next-generation racers are working their butts off but would love to come together, collectively with the NHRA, to actually bring those sponsorship dollars, those partnership dollars, to the table where they’re competing for that money.”
And the sport has deliverables for what companies want.
“This is short. This is powerful. It’s sensory overload. It’s what the Gen Z people want. It’s what the Millennials are thriving on right now. They love our sport. Nobody wants to sit and watch cars go around and around and around for four or five hours – especially in this day and age where people want everything in small doses and moving fast. We’ve got an opportunity here. We’ve got an opportunity to solve these problems.”
NHRA President Glen Cromwell can rattle off the sport’s attractions, too: “Our sport is aligned so perfectly for today’s generation of youth, in the sense that it is instant gratification. And it’s extreme. And a lot of this younger generation is multitasking, looking at their phones. We’re a perfect sport for it. We’re interactive. We’re all-access. You don’t have to sit in a seat for two or three hours to watch a sport. You can come in here and watch 45 minutes. You can do whatever you want. You can stand on the fence. You can go sit in a seat. You can go get a sample of Mello Yello. There’s a lot of interaction going on. In today’s world and the future, that’s what people want. They want to be able to be mobile and choose what they want. The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is perfectly aligned for the future. That’s why you hear the optimism. Our sport is aligning well with the future generations.”
So that’s a positive starting point to this conversation Powers would like to have. She knows it could be bumpy from there, but she says that’s worth it and necessary to strike an alliance.
“I’ve worked for Alan Johnson for 19 years, and I don’t always like to hear criticism that I did something wrong or I need to do something better. It doesn’t feel good to hear that. But I’ve heard that many times from him. And you deal with it and you adjust yourself so you can be better. That’s what you do – or you don’t. Or you don’t and nothing changes, and you lose your job. It never feels good to be the brunt of criticism,” she concedes. “You have to say, ‘What is my contribution to this problem?’ And that’s really hard for people to do. We always want to point fingers. It’s easy to point fingers. But it’s hard to look at your own contribution to the problem.”
The key to sponsorship is about building a relationship to deliver benefits.
“This is all about relationships and trust,” she says. “If I’m a marketing director and I have a bucket of money, I have to answer to my CFO, my boss, the CEO, about how I’m spending this money. If I don’t feel 100-percent secure that I’m going to have a return on investment when I go in and give my report to my boss, I’m not spending my money with you. We always look at it from ‘What partnerships can I get-get-get?’ But what I need to do when I’m talking to a marketing CMO or somebody who has the authority to spend that bucket of money, I’ve got to show them that they’re in good hands with me, that they’re going to be well taken care of, that I’m going to provide a return on their investment. They’re not going to put their neck out for me. I wouldn’t do that. Would you? If if you were a marketing director and you have $3 million that you can spend? At the end of the day, when you go and report that and say, ‘Well, I spent $3 million, but I really can’t tell you I got it back’ – I’m not willing to risk that if I’m not sure I’m going to get a return on my investment, if I’m not sure when I bring my customers there or my associates there or my B2B opportunities to this platform that they’re not going to have the time of their lives.”
Powers urges, “We have to get in the mind of the marketer, the mind of the person who has the budget to spend money in our sport. We have to get in the mind of that person and focus our needs on their needs. Everybody has different wants and needs, but the good news about that is our sport can deliver it. Our sport has so many deliverables. My job is to find out what these people need. I want to fulfill a need. And I want them to feel comfort in that, feel stable in the fact that they’re going to be investing in our sport and that they’re going to get a return on that investment.”
She says she does her homework so that “when I approach them, I know exactly what they want. And not only that, I have the data and I have the assets to be able to put that together for them into a robust race program to where they can’t say no. But for some reason, at the last hour they’re saying, ‘It’s not going to work.’
“I go out there and I talk to people. They don’t even know about us,” Powers says. “There’s a new generation of marketers who have the keys to these buckets of money, what the brands want to spend, especially in experiential sports. Look at our open platform. It’s a direct connection with the fans. But these young kids, these Millenials, these Gen Z people now coming up, they don’t even know what our sport is. And they think, ‘Motorsports – we’re in NASCAR.’ That’s their mentality, because they haven’t been engaged. They haven’t been wooed. They haven’t been entertained. They haven’t been welcomed and brought into our sport.”
Maybe the NHRA should take a cue from NASCAR.
“When you have somebody like Tony Schumacher sitting out, there’s a problem. It goes back to the missing link with the sanctioning body,” she says. “I remember when Danica Patrick and Bubba Wallace did not have sponsors. You know what NASCAR did? They went into the marketing department, which is 20 people (we have three or whatever – a handful). They said, ‘Everybody drop everything. Work on getting Danica a deal and work on Bubba getting a sponsor – or you’re all fired. This is what you’re doing, and nobody stops until it’s done.’ Obviously, that was their diversity in NASCAR, so that’s probably why they pushed it as hard as they did. I’m like wow – if our sanction body cared enough about the show, if the NHRA said, ‘Oh! Team owner, decorated, legendary tuner Alan Johnson is not funded to run his own cars, we need him out there. Let’s do everything we can to promote this agenda’ . . .
“This is something that needs to be talked about. This is part of the uncomfortable conversation,” Powers says.
Even the best cooperation and best business practices and best template for action don’t guarantee desired results 100 percent of the time. And Powers knows that.
“There are a lot of variables that go into this. You could have a CEO who doesn’t want to be in motorsports and doesn’t know anything about the NHRA. So the deal is crushed. Or you could have a marketing director leave the company. There are so many challenges and so many variables. This is why the NHRA marketing department needs to be more robust: because there are so many moving parts in this on both sides. We need to come together so we have more of a chance to gain some traction,” she says.
Her job – and the jobs of every team sponsor-development representative – can be maddening and frustrating. But, Powers says, “The good news is it doesn’t have to be, because we have the assets. There’s something broken. It can be fixed. But we have to have to have the uncomfortable conversation to do it.”
How soon can it happen? How soon can the notion of a summit become reality? Someone schedule a date, please.