Nissan Takes the Lead in the Evolution of Motorsport
So much of the motorsports scene in the United States continues to struggle along. It doesn’t really matter which discipline we are discussing — sports cars, open-wheel racing, or NASCAR — the attendance numbers in the grandstands and in front of the TV sets are respectively flat or a fraction of what they were a generation ago. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? How to attract the latest generation, millennials, to the world of motorsport.
What if the young (and not so young) leaders from Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, or Amazon decided to enter the world of racing? How would they do it? It’s a fair question. These leaders have tapped into not only the millennial generation, but that of older people, too, and have created brand loyalty and revenue streams across all generations, genders, classes, races, and borders. In other words, all of these companies have one thing in common: the ability to attract “users” (customers, consumers, followers) to their company and their products. And all of these users have one thing in common: their collective diversity.
The October 2013 edition of National Geographic contains a wonderful article titled “The Changing Face of America,” which finds the U.S. Census Bureau’s “multiracial” category chosen by respondents increased by 32 percent between the 2000 and 2010 census. The article also contains a series of portraits by photographer Martin Schoeller illustrating the fact that Americans are, like the rest of the world, a rich tapestry of multiple cultures. The Census Bureau predicts by the year 2046, non-Hispanic whites will be the minority race in the United States.
Talk to most well-adjusted high school and college-age kids today, and they will tell you race, sexual orientation, religion, or social class structure have no influence on their friendships or peer groups. They get it. Social media has helped to remove these barriers from how we interact, choose our friends, or purchase products. These new businesses recognized early on the importance of having a long-term approach, foregoing the temptation of quick profits, and establishing roots and being all-inclusive.
But most of the auto-racing world has not figured this out. Look at the three major forms of racing in North America and their fan bases. NASCAR — primarily Southern-based and white. Indy Car — primarily Midwest based and white. Sports Car – primarily Northeast or West Coast-based and white. The leaders of these forms of racing continue to run their organizations from a 1970s business model — white bread, whole milk, vanilla ice cream — stuck in the past and unable to effectively engage a generation that views itself as multicultural.
Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos did not take the old-fashioned route to build their companies. They broke new ground, embraced changes, challenged the establishment and kicked some serious old-school business model ass along the way.
Just when you think there is no hope for the racing world to crack this code, it is time to stop and recognize that one car company’s racing program has been quietly following a similar path as the new breed of Internet and tech companies. The company is Nissan. And in 2015 the world will see the results of their long-term, years ahead of the pack, completely different approach to racing.
Several years ago, Nissan realized no race series could see what they saw, or provide the platform to build the type of program they wanted to build. So they did it themselves. The biggest barrier to enter racing is money. It takes serious dollars to go to driving school, let alone pursue a racing career. These barriers are similar to golf. And cultural diversity is not something that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of a golf course or a racing cockpit.
So Nissan simply eliminated the barrier. They started the Nissan GT Academy in 2008. They understood that video games were played around the globe. You could live in LA and play a video game, in real time, with people in Rio, Toyko, Copenhagen, and Nairobi. More than 3 million people have entered the GT Academy in the past six years. And at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, four of the Academy students will participate in the greatest race in the world. They are Lucas Ordonez of Spain, Jann Mardenborough of England, Wolfgang Reip of Belgium, and Mark Shulzhitskiy of Russia.
The Nissan GT Academy was the foundation of changing the face and ways of motorsport. Give young people, from all cultures, the opportunity to enter the world of racing and they will embrace it, follow it, and flourish. And these young people will help create, maintain, and grow your brand. And follow your race team. And buy your products.
Nissan realized years ago they needed to develop racing programs that attracted fresh eyes. In other words, innovate. When other major car companies scorned and rejected the idea, Nissan said yes to the DeltaWing project. And their followers, including magazines that rarely cover racing, and fans that never cared about racing, grew exponentially. Designer Ben Bowlby proved a car shaped like a jet fighter, with half the weight, half the power, could compete at Le Mans.
At this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, Bowlby and Nissan return with another Project 56 car. While many confuse this car as an evolution of the DeltaWing, it really is not. The car has completely different dimensions, completely different bodywork, and is a closed cockpit. The focus on this year’s project is the benefits of a narrow track front end and completing one lap per stint at Le Mans on all electric power.
Nissan’s next step into the future is well under way. Nissan will compete head-to-head with the likes of Audi, Porsche, and Toyota for overall victories in the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans 24 Hours in 2015. Bowlby has designed the new GT-R LM prototype as well.
Andy Palmer, Nissan’s executive vice-president and chief planning officer, announced the news at a press conference in London last month. He used the word “innovative” an awful lot at that presser. We figure he had a good reason to do so. We predict when Bowlby’s latest creation is unveiled, it will have the same reaction as the masterpieces created by Jim Hall in the 1960s.
The GT-R LM will be an international project with major sources contributing from Japan, Europe and the United States. I also predict the United States’ connection will be significant and attract old race folks and new, and younger fans from the both coasts and the heartland.
Most significantly, it seems certain a Nissan GT Academy driver will have a seat in this car at Le Mans. The most likely candidate is Mardenborough, the 2011 GT Academy winner, whose father is British and mother is Swedish (for you census data geeks).
The other thing Andy Palmer said at the press conference is, “We will win Le Mans.” How refreshing was that statement? Especially coming from a senior executive at a major car company. There was no attempt later to take it back, clarify it, or water it down. And what kind of impact do you think that kind of statement has on millennials? Especially when compared to the canned “fecal talk” some other car execs are forced to make. This BS is invented by some boardroom committee in Ingolstadt, or a room full of PR flaks and lawyers in Dearborn. It is as transparent and worthless as used toilet paper. The statements are constructed to have wriggle room and plausible deniability – you know, the 1970s way.
The way we see it, Nissan is light years ahead of the every other car company racing at Le Mans. For the past six years they have been quietly, and not so quietly, putting in place the groundwork for the next generation, and the next quantum leap in the world of motorsports. They have developed a corporate attitude of thinking, acting, and racing at a completely different level from their competition. And one year from now, we will see if it works. And those folks who are following this program represent everything we all are. A celebration of our diversity and aspirations. The collective soul of a racing program and a car company, and the world we all live in.