Honda Racing / IZOD IndyCar Series / RacingLine
Making Friends and Influencing People
As successful as Honda has been in open-wheel racing over the past 14 years, in terms of race wins and season championships, a strong argument could also be made that the company has won many fans off the track because of its popular hospitality programs.
While Honda-powered drivers won six straight CART championships (1996-2001), and have dominated the Indy Racing League from 2004 to the present, the off-track entertainment program for dealers and consumers has also been a big winner.
Led by Kurt Antonius (left), assistant vice president, corporate public relations for American Honda, the dealer/consumer hospitality program has turned thousands of casual observers into staunch fans of the IndyCar Series, because they were given the ultimate backstage pass.
"More than 50 percent, and I'd say it's closer to 60 percent, of our consumer guests have never been to a car race in their life," said Antonius, who helped launch the hospitality program in 1994. "And it's so wonderful to see their eyes opened, and how excited they get.
"It's been a raging success with our dealers, key vendors, VIPs and consumers. We did a survey with each one of our customers after each of our seven 2008 events, and the results validated our initial impressions.
"They were incredibly excited, and they couldn't wait to go to another race."
A Day at the Races with Honda offers nothing short of the star treatment. Each guest receives a gift bag, a tour of the paddock area, a visit from an IndyCar driver and a premium grandstand seat for the race.
Oh, and did we also mention breakfast and lunch?
"It's a really special day for them, and my experience has been that every person who has gone has become an IndyCar fan and they were stoked," continued Antonius, who plays host to 50 to 100 people on any given weekend.
"We send out an invitation and we don't know if the people who receive it are rabid race fans. but most of them wind up being giddy about the whole experience."
As mentioned above, the guest list has always encompassed just about everyone in the Honda family but, this past season, Antonius wanted to concentrate on just one segment: the customer.
"We send out a Dear John Doe letter, thanking them for being a customer and inviting them to be our guest at the race track. We don't expose them to any salesmen or a sales pitch, and we don't show them the latest prices on Accords.
"It's just a day of fun for them, no strings attached, and they can't believe it."
The return on Honda's investment has been well worth it, according to surveys.
"It's a way to build brand loyalty for people who have owned Hondas or Honda products like lawnmowers and four-wheelers," said Antonius. "The post-race survey validates our program, because people tend to feel much better about Honda as a company.
"It's an important way for American Honda to validate the company's investment in racing."