TUSCC’s Ed Bennett (left) and Scott Atherton (Marshall Pruett photo)
In Part 2 of RACER’s interview with TUDOR Championship CEO Ed Bennett, Marshall Pruett and the man in charge of the combined ALMS and Grand-Am sports car series broach some of the tougher topics that have been raised in recent weeks. Where Part 1 of the interview concentrated heavily on the series itself and many of the changes taking place in the Prototype class, Part 2 begins with a look at the GT classes.
MARSHALL PRUETT: I like the idea of establishing GT LE Mans as the class for factory programs ” not that privateers can’t also join in, and that GT Daytona is meant to be more of a Pro-Am class. But so far, and of all the classes that we’ll see next year, GT Daytona is the one that seems hardest to get a feel for in terms of car counts and overall interest. Do you think we’ll see a solid turnout in GTD by the time we race at Daytona?
ED BENNETT: I think so. We sent out the class limit guidance because we just thought it was the right thing to do this year; car capacity by track. Not to scare anybody, but really just to say ?This is the schedule, there is only so much capacity on pit lane and paddock space at the different tracks.’ Given the limitations, if things maxed out, how would you allocate potentially, tentatively, the maximum car count capacity? I know that got people’s dander up a little bit but we just wanted to shoot a flare up to say, we’ve done a straw poll, we have a sense of where people are, give or take.
And you really won’t know until people sign up and complete a season. We sent that out to say there’s capacity issues. Some circuits more than others. Here’s kind of a rough almost 50-50 split between prototype and GT cars per event. In some cases, we had to do some splitting of the classes and races and that kind of stuff. We put that out there and I think then you open up the application process and people tell you what they really want to do. Which, I don’t think they really know what they want to do until they send back those applications.
I think our approach is open up the application process, try to share everything we know about the car capacity issues at the different tracks, and we sent that out kind of as a tentative guideline. But where the rubber meets the road for me is when you get all applications in and you kind of close the window, if you will, on accepting applications and then you can see how the applications by class compare to what you thought might be what would happen.
I personally don’t think it will match up exactly, but I’m hoping it comes pretty close to that. I think having a good balance of P’s versus GT’s is a good thing for the diversity of the sport. But, honestly, we probably won’t know where GT Daytona sits until probably after the two tests, if I had to guess. I think it’s kind of a working idea is you give the teams some time to sort through which class they’d like to be part of next year.
MP: There has been a fair bit of grousing related to the overall rise in entry fees, specifically related to the expense of paying a separate fee to become a ?Premium? full-season entrant or ?Standard? entrant.
EB: I think part of it ” and hopefully you got the bulletin ” if you look at entry fees, assuming people sign up for the season, and take the Grand-Am rate card for entry fees, I think it’s within $5,000 of what it was this year to run for the championship. True, it’s 11, not 12 events in most cases, but part of what I think might be tripping people up, because it’s a new model for the Grand-Am guys, is this idea of the premium entrant. For the $35,500 up front, you get this package of goodies. A lot of that you would’ve had to purchase. So people have been paying for car members, people been paying for credentials and park cars and FIA entrant stuff and all those different elements, and equipment, and all these different things that go with entering a car. We just elected to simplify it. And that’s kind of the ALMS model of having hopefully a stable field, having really a full season entrant fee that is paid upfront when you want to enter into all the races; rather than a bunch of small transactions, just kind of having the one transaction, that’s the $35,500.
And the entrant fees, as you go across, like I said, I think it’s within $5,000 of what Grand-Am was this year. I don’t think the entry fees have changed for sure for the Grand-Am guys. And on the ALMS side, they’ve been kind of paying the premium… They’ve been paying the season entry fees, they’re used to this; instead of being $35,500 I think it was $32,500 this year for them. So it’s a different model I think than it was for a lot of them.
The full-year entry payment, $32,500, was for ALMS. This year for IMSA, it’s $35,500. For Grand-Am you would’ve had to pay for all this stuff individually. There would’ve been a number, I’m not sure it would’ve added up to 35, but it would’ve added up to quite a bit if you had to go on what was the Grand-Am rate card this year; the entry fees, like I said, compared to Grand-Am, it’s very similar. It’s not significantly different. On the ALMS side, I think it is higher from where they were. So it’s a blend of both approaches.
But we think, in our opinion, of course or we wouldn’t have done it if we think it’s fair in the marketplace. And for someone who’s running the whole season, if you connected the whole season of entry fees for Prototype and GTLM being the two highest, it’s $83,500 to run in all 11 races.
And $35,500, to have that bundled package of credentials and all the equipment on the car and the leader light kits and all that different stuff, you add those together, I think it’s personally a fair number. But, you know, you would expect for us to say that.
MP: To a lesser degree, I’ve heard complaints about the reduction in prize money.
EB: On the purse side, I would say overall the purses are equal to or greater than what either series had this year. The ALMS only paid five deep for its five classes. And Grand-Am with its three classes went 10, 5 and 3 between DP, GT and GX.
So with the simplification of straight five deep across the four classes in the TUDOR Championship, the checks were meaningful enough for everybody. But I don’t think the purses have gone down. And the year-end point fund, in ALMS, is about $560 this year. I think Grand-Am was something like $825 this year. And it will be $1,072,500 for next year.
The year-end point fund in total is up. The purses in total are up. We’ve got four classes, five deep on event purses and 10 deep on year-end point fund for people that run all the races.
MP: The topic of which safety team will be used next year ” or, I should say, the possible change in safety teams from the existing IMSA crew used in the ALMS to a less-permanent team ” has been met with a lot of anger and frustration by many within the paddock. After receiving feedback on this issue, will we see the IMSA team return, or has an official decision been made to go a different route.
EB: I think it’s pretty close to being finalized, to be honest with you. There’s three different models: there’s the Grand-Am model, there’s the ALMS model, and there’s the NASCAR/National Series model for Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks. And what’s happening is a likely hybrid of those approaches where you manage? safety is really important to all of us. It really, truly is; I’m not just saying that.
For half of the model between the sanctioning body and the track, it’s really clear in terms of who does what, who has what part of the responsibility covered. There’s lots of training about roles and responsibilities and who manages what elements.
I think we’re really close to finalizing the model and being able to sit down and define what the model is. It will be a good one. But really, it’s a partnership with the tracks and I think that’s where it’s different from the ALMS in that respect. If you compare it to Sprint Cup, it is the Sprint Cup model. I don’t think everybody looks at NASCAR’s National Series and says they don’t have a good safety program. I’ve never heard that.
I put it in a ?change management’ category. I think there is a lot of comfort with the ALMS model for a lot of people that they’re used to, and change is a tough issue. I think once people can see it in action and see the professionalism, and the standards that have been established with things like helicopters and different things, it’s actually really well thought out. It’s not really a gamble. It’s kind of a tried and tested model, particularly on the NASCAR side.
MP: On the TV side, I’ve heard an option exists to upgrade some of the events on FOX Sports 1 and 2, the cable channels, to FOX linear.
EB: Yes. When I explain it I think you’ll understand why we positioned it the way we did. We’ve got the partnership agreement with Fox as it relates to the FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2. That’s done. That’s the plan, we have to figure out the time slots and what’s on FS1, what’s on FS2, what can we stream, all those details.
But we do have the option with FOX and their partners to look at taking some races from cable to network. And it really becomes a function of, do our commercial partners want to support that move from an advertising standpoint and everything else? The economics make it more viable. What we have that we know for certain is what we’ve announced. Could it get better? It could. I think it’s a function of FOX availability coupled with real stakeholders, manufacturers pushing and also backing and investing to take some races from cable to network.
MP: With the increase in the amount of hours in racing next year, the budget increases for the teams, there’s a need to find more sponsorship to participate. One of the traditional means to acquire sponsorship is based off of TV ratings ” to sell advertising against a meaningful Nielsen figure. With SPEED, now FOX Sports 1, a steady .2 to .3 rating has always been there and could slightly increase, but it’s has been pretty steady for quite some time.
The big concern, from a budget standpoint, and especially from a growth and awareness standpoint, is FOX Sports 2. You simply can’t sell sponsors on a rating of .1 or below, nor can you engage new fans with races on a channel that’s in barely more than 30 million homes.
Looking at the paddock’s need to increase their budgets and the need to draw awareness to the TUDOR Championship, it would seem that converting as many of those FOX Sports 2 events to FOX linear is an absolute must.
EB: Yes. It’s a challenge, for sure. And I think that SPEED going away on the motorsports landscape has its short-term issues. My personal opinion, FOX Sports 1 and 2 will continue, I think, to grow their household distribution. FOX Sports 1 is already well above what SPEED was at its peak. FOX Sports 2, it’s going to take a while to get there but I think over time, much like ESPN2, which has high distribution today, no question FOX has the ability; it has the strategic focus and they say it is to see if it can really grow the distribution number. They’ll get it there.
When you average the two together, FS1 being higher, FS2 as it stands today being lower, but every day I think they’re working to grow the distribution. When you see the numbers a year, two years, three years out, there’s a clear commitment on their part to grow it. So I think about it from a blended standpoint. Like what is that blended number? How many races are on 1 versus 2 and what are the actual distribution numbers and how does that compare back to what SPEED was?
Growing an audience on TV and the spectators at the events, those are two pretty important metrics for any property. We’re focused on it, we should be. We’ll be doing an image campaign to really support the series and launch it with all our stakeholders, TV and print, to get people to know about the new branded products in the series, where to find it, where to consume it, in person or on television. So we’re going to market it. We’re doing a lot of co-op marketing, whether it’s TUDOR or tire partners or OEMs. I think overall, the series has more marketing partnership and more collective marketing power than sports car racing had probably ever.
I look at all that and say, OK, how much are the OEMs willing to commit to marketing? How much are the title sponsors committed to marketing? How much are the tire partners committed to marketing?
And if you add all that up plus what the series is going to do directly itself, plus all the institutional inventory that we get as a part of the television partnership that also includes NASCAR, I think being a part of the NASCAR group, we’re looking to be able to leverage a lot of their institutional inventory in the December, January time period. It’s not something that NASCAR needs in that time, but we do. NASCAR is good enough to provide us with institutional inventory; if we were on our own we would never have had this stuff. But when you add it all together, it’s a pretty impressive marketing effort collectivized in a bunch of different channels. Digital, print and on television.
So I don’t think it’s ever been in a better position. Any sports property is only as good as its marketing partners are at leveraging the market against it. We are following that model, which I call the NASCAR model; if we all make a contribution, if we all activate and help to push this through our channels and co-op what we can, that there’s a lot of power in that co-op and marketing.
MP: Let’s close on how the series will market and promote itself to the world. Grand-Am made efforts, at certain points in time, to make itself known, but it wasn’t a consistent push. How will the TUDOR Championship go about things differently, because it’s obviously needed, and how much support do you have from NASCAR to aggressively promote this new sports car brand?
EB: I think from a pure dollars-and-cents standpoint, we have the challenge of making it work as a stand-alone property ” to see that it’s sustainable on its own. The strategy is to try and bring everybody together, especially with NASCAR, which is the stakeholder of the merger. We’re trying to have everyone rally around a common vision. We’re trying to do things a lot like what NASCAR did by having great partners, and having a platform that they feel comfortable and proud enough to promote their brands around.
Hopefully, we’re helping them sell their products and services and, hopefully, they’re helping us to build a great series that a lot of people want to be a part of. Whether it’s the auto manufacturers or tire partners or the fuel partner, your official partners, they’re all working out what’s reasonable for their businesses and getting to their comfort level in supporting the TUDOR Championship.
But we can’t do it on our own. If you look at how a sanctioning body promotes its product, or how a track promotes itself, I don’t think there’s enough muscle there, personally, to get the job done without working together.