Why Kia Goes Racing

Korea Learns About "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday"

By Jacob Brown | October 11, 2012
Living in California for more than a year, I've become desensitized to seeing the truly weird and absurd in a state that once elected an action star as its governor. But the other day something caught me off-guard. I saw a late-1990s Kia Sephia sedan, a rancid excuse for basic transportation even when it was new. Stretching across its windshield was a "Kia Racing" vinyl graphic. That struck me. "Now that's weird," I thought. Fanboyism for racing teams like that usually strikes teenage guys who own old Hondas with clothes-hanger wings, noisy exhausts, and a larger supply of stickers than what most first grade teachers have at their convenience. But Kia? "Kia Racing" is just three years old. And most people don't even realize Kia has a racing team, much less a fairly successful one at that. It's no secret that Kia has made the transition from disposable cars to desirable automaker, but what's the point of Kia having its own racing team? To become the next Porsche, BMW, or Mazda, and establish its own long, storied histories in racing?
No, it's all about connecting with customers, says Michael Sprague, Kia's executive vice president of marketing and communication. "We wanted to change customer perception from a value and fuel economy brand to design and technology," he said. Kia struggled through the 1990s with lackluster cars and SUVs and didn't emerge as a power player outside South Korea until just a few years ago, after receiving a reprieve from the colossus that is Hyundai. "There are still a lot of people quite surprised to see us," says Sprague. "And there are still a lot of people who don't know what a Kia is."

Getting Started

Racing isn't cheap.
Kia is well aware of this fact, having raced Sportages in SCORE and Baja off-road events throughout the late-1990s and early 2000s. But road racing is a completely different animal. Sponsoring three sets of race cars--a team of 400- to 500-horsepower Kia Optima sedans in the Pirelli World Change series GTS class, a pair of Kia Forte Koups in Grand-Am's Continental Tire ST class, and Kia Rio 5-doors in B-Spec racing--Kia is spending millions of dollars to shuttle its cars across the nation and race them for a few hours a month. "It's certainly not a NASCAR budget," Sprague contends, though, adding Kia's expenditures are proprietary. "But we believe strongly enough in motorsports, and we believe we're getting a strong enough return on investment." It's common knowledge a Kia Rio B-Spec's costs include $14,550 for a base 2013 Rio LX 5-door, $14,600 for the race car conversion parts from Kinetic Racing, Kia's racing partner, and $6,000 for installation, bringing the total up to $35,150. Kinetic's race engineers said it costs "about $90,000" to field a team for a year of racing, which we assume can be amortized between the two Rio B-Spec cars Kia fielded throughout its nine-race inaugural season in 2012. "For the Optima, multiply that by 10," he added. That doesn't even include what Kia spends on its Forte Koup Grand-Am cars, which likely split the difference between the Optima and the Rio. Combined, what Kia spends on racing could buy 30-second TV spots for at least five of the top 10 primetime shows, reaching a far greater audience than a few races that don't garner nearly the same kind of attention as NASCAR or IndyCar. "We made the decision a few years ago," says Sprague regarding the cost's justification. "We needed to connect with new consumers to get our new products out there." As the person responsible for greenlighting some of the most popular TV car campaigns of the last decade--the Kia Soul's hip-hopping "Hamstars," for instance--he's all-too-aware of helping the Kia Motors gain exposure. But there was a lot of work to do. Before 2010, Kia had just a few years of off-road racing under its belt with the Sportage in the 1990s. Getting support from headquarters in Seoul was the first big hurdle the then-traditionally trigger-shy automaker had to take. "Not having a culture of racing in our DNA, we didn't want to get into something too big." Grand-Am's Continental Tire series was what management decided on, submitting its first entries in 2010 and expanding its racing endeavors in 2012. Sprague says the venues prove ideal for Kia's mission. "Motorsports enthusiasts are influencers. When they give their opinions, they're valued and respected. They're brand advocates."

Racing's Grassroots Effects

Remember that dowdy, old Kia Sephia draped in "Kia Racing" garb? Sprague wants more people like that following Kia.
"We absolutely want to engage Kia owners before they buy and after they buy," he says, grateful for the company's snowballing success that began with the Soul in 2009. "People can see the cars and say 'They beat Porsches, BMWs, and other vehicles last weekend.' It gives customers a little pride and confidence in their cars." Dealers have also reported customers coming in to check out the race cars when they're in town, and Sprague says fans have come to check Kia's cars out before races, complimenting the team's cars. "It's not a new strategy from what other OEMs have done," Sprague said. "We saw the effect it had with other automakers. "We want to continue to connect with consumers in ways they wouldn't otherwise see us. There's an untapped opportunity with motorsports."
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