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."

From Racing to the Road

Campaigning a team of cars throughout a racing season ranks somewhere above loaning out a rental cars in terms of the most abusive things that can be done to beat up a vehicle. With a race car, you're straining the car's engine with every redline shift and punishing every bolt, weld, and rivet. Without insulation like sound deadening in the cars, they literally shake themselves apart in the pursuit of speed.
In other words, whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and much faster than in any street car. With racing cars that were transformed from dealer-lot staples--Kia's Forte Koup and Rio B-Spec cars differ little from the production cars mechanically--it's possible to monitor what the thrashing does to a car's integrity at a much faster rate. All that information is constantly being sent from Kia's North American engineering staff to its Korean operations. Because Kia's short time in racing, Sprague says much of what Kia has learned on the track hasn't sifted into its production vehicles quite yet. One exception is that the redesigned 2014 Kia Forte will have a stronger, improved brake design that came out of racing tweaks. We weren't given any further details, seeing as how the car is still in development. One no-brainer for any automaker with a racing program would be the spin it off into a higher-performance model, like the Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Si, and MazdaSpeed3. Sprague says that's not happening, at least not now. "I'm not saying we're not going to have them in the future, but there's still a lot we have to learn." Currently, Kia's focus is on durability, lightweight construction, and fuel-efficiency, which buyers are more likely to appreciate than a 250-horsepower hatchback. But Kia's not laying low with its new sporty image, and it's why the automaker decided to go ahead with the Kia Optima race cars for 2012. Much like the Rio and Forte, the Optima wasn't designed to be a race car. The race program for it didn't even get off the ground until the fall of 2011 when Kinetic asked Kia if it could borrow a run-of-the-mill Optima for the heck of it. Kinetic's reaction: "Wow, that car needs to be on a race track," Sprague recalls. Kinetic figured it could turn the Optima into a World Challenge series touring car, competing against Mustangs, Camaros, and Porsche Caymans. The race-spec Optimas are built using the same basic platform as the production cars, but they've been stripped of their interiors and have had most of their parts replaced by high-performance pieces designed by Kinetic. Their engines use the same basic block as the one found in the Optima SX, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, but power is nearly twice the production car's 274 horsepower. Although the road and race versions of the Optima don't share too much between one another, Kia went ahead with using racing imagery for its minute-and-a-half-long 2012 Super Bowl commercial called "Drive the Dream." The spot showed a protagonist circling an oval track in an Optima Limited with supermodel Adriana Lima waving him on, along with former UFC fighter Chuck Liddell, rock gods Motley Crue, and a giant sandwich after an incident with the sandman goes awry. "Young males—guys—dream of racing," Sprague said of the commercial. "That's why we put it on the track again." But Sprague said there was special attention paid to protagonist's wife, who has her dream with a Fabio interrupted after her husband in the Kia crashes through and takes her to live happily ever after. After all, not all 100 million people who catch the Super Bowl game are guys.

The Next Track

Kia's racing program was born from a conservative brand building conservative cars for conservative people. Then 2009 happened, with Kia growing some personality and spunk right at the height of the recession when people wanted value-oriented sporty cars.
Then racing Kia Fortes happened, and Kia won its class outright in 2011's Grand-Am season in its second year. And, finally, we have Kia fielding six cars from its factory-sponsored team in three different racing championships. With such an aggressive rollout, it's hard not to speculate about next year and the rollout of the 2014 Kia Forte already. "We're going to take it one step at a time," says Sprague. "Next year, we're going to stay where we're at and see where it goes." That means there aren't going to be any Optima NASCAR racers anytime soon, or Sportages tackling the Baja 1000 again. Kia is too busy with other things. Through most of 2012, the Korean automaker has racked up sales record after sales record, juggling production in its U.S. and Korean assembly plants to manage worldwide demand, which is up significantly from where it was last year. Kia's expansion is rapid, absorbing conquests in the U.S. and Europe, largely driven by the fact that its vehicles are value-priced in an economy riddled with uncertainty. As it was for the U.S. in 2009, it's still proving to be a winning formula overseas. Kia is planning a stable growth strategy of more middle-of-the-road cars. It's not something that will light the weekend racer's fancy. That isn't to say Kia is done with developing sporty cars, though. Not even close. At February's Chicago Auto Show, Kia introduced the Track'ster, an all-wheel-drive, 250-horsepower compact hatchback concept car. Based on the Kia Soul, it was a sporty interpretation of what the next generation could be—and likely a clear foreshadowing of what it will be. Kia is devoted to its racing program, and it's devoted towards building upon its aspiring sporting image. It's started testing vehicles on the famed German Nurburgring, and signs point towards it continuing to develop its cars for better balance and poise. And it's still running autonomously from Hyundai, the parent company that recently halted its U.S. racing operations. Kia isn't following suit. Racing is a quick way to gain notoriety, but it's also an expensive proposition and can be a backfiring blunder if not followed through with a modicum of success. At dealerships, it competes with Camrys and Accords. But seeing Optimas racing Porsches, BMWs, and Camaros, Kia is itching to be associated with some high-caliber nameplates. And there's something to show for it. Kia has already won a championship in the Grand-Am ST class with its Forte Koup in 2011. In 2012, drivers Andy Lally and Nic Jonsson finished third and fourth in the points standings, respectively, and Kia finished third in the manufacturers standings with the Fortes. In the World Challenge series, the Kia finished fourth in the GTS class in its first year, led by Michael Galati, a former champion for Audi's racing program. Individually, he came in fourth out of 39 drivers in the individual points standings. Teammate Mark Wilkins finished ninth. And in B-Spec, Rio driver Russell Smith led Kia’s efforts with a third place overall finish in points; Kia ranked fourth out of five ahead of Mazda in the manufacturers’ standings. Even with next to no racing pedigree, Kia is doing something right.
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