Editorial

Champ Car's global success may ride on mimicking the Team Australia concept
 
by Mark Cipolloni

 October 21, 2005

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The Team Australia concept runs from Formula BMW up the ladder to Champ Car

If Champ Car wants to be a true global sports property, its ultimate success may ride on duplicating what Walker Racing has done with the Team Australia concept.  In most countries Champ Car is known by a very small percentage of the population.  But if there's one thing we know works in sports, it is a fan's loyalty to their countrymen. Champ Car said it would duplicate the Team Australia concept for every country it raced in, then the A1 Grand Prix Series beat them to the punch.

But it's not too late.  If you see how well the Team Australia concept has been activated here in Surfers Paradise, you would understand why Champ Car must stick to the concept first put forth by Derrick Walker and then executed to perfection with the help of Australian businessman Craig Gore.

Taking a lead from stick-and-ball sports, they are known as the NY Yankees, not just the Yankees, the LA Dodgers, not just the Dodgers, the Chicago Bulls, not just the Bulls, Manchester United, not just United. While fans will always admire great athletes, regardless of where they are from, in general fans latch onto geographically based teams, be it city-based or country based, and there is no reason it can't work in racing.

Team Australia is evident everywhere in Surfers and the fans have really latched onto the team as "their own."  If Champ Car wants to race in China, Korea, Japan, etc., it had better create a Team China, Team Japan, Team Korea sooner rather than later.  As unknown a quantity they are in these countries, to think Champ Car can show up and put on an event without something for the local fans to cheer for is naive.  Champ Car simply doesn't have the worldwide brand recognition of F1, far from it.

I sat down with Derrick Walker in the team's garage in Surfers Paradise to get a better perspective of why the Team Australia concept works.

Mark Cipolloni:  Derrick, we see a large display, if I might use those words, for Team Australia. Everywhere green and yellow. Can you explain to us how this concept started and what your relationship is with Craig Gore.


Derrick Walker (L) and Brett 'Crusher' Murray (Race Promoter's PR man) work closely together around the Team Australia concept

DERRICK WALKER: Well, it actually started several years ago, at least two years ago, when we were looking seriously at going to China. I thought there would be a golden opportunity if I could find some way to develop a partnership with a Chinese gentleman who had a lot of money, who had a passion to put a Chinese driver in a car. That's where it really started. It didn't come to being in China for me.

At this race last year, we had an opportunity from Mr. Kalkhoven to run a car for WPS with Craig Gore, David Besnard. We had a reasonable finish, seventh place. After the race, Craig threw a party, Craig Gore. We were having a few beers at the end of the bar talking about how great we were.

The idea came to me that this guy had a passion for racing, was a proud Australian. That's the best way to describe it. I said to him, I've got some ideas of how we could do a race program so that we could come here and win with an Australian driver, something that people would really be proud of. So, you know, I'd really like to talk to you.


The Team Australia concept extends even to the local V8 Supercars series
Mark Cipolloni

We talked back and forth, off and on, since Surfers, but it never really took off until probably early February. I got a call from Craig, and he said, "Hey, mate," you know how they say it, "are you still interested in talking about that thing? I can't come over there, can you come over here," he asked.

I slipped over here in February, met with Craig, spent about four days with him at his home, and basically what I brought to him was a concept which I call cause marketing, "cause" meaning it's a mission for a marketing mission. And the marketing mission is about putting Team Australia in Champ Car, Atlantic, BMW, V8s, Aussie races, whatever racing program Craig and I can turn our minds to, we need to be participating with the Australian brand and the Australian team. So that means real live Australians involved in the program.

So I painted this picture to him how it would be an Australian flag-waving exercise. He immediately got it, liked it, and we presented him the gold and green. I lived in Australia many years ago when I was very young, so I had a bit of understanding about the Australian psyche, I think. And I knew that the Australians, although part of the Commonwealth and the blue and the Union Jack, the real Australia is a republic, and it's really the gold and green. You know, that to me represents the young Australia.

So I pitched this car. And, of course, everybody knows where a kangaroo comes from.  I put a kangaroo on there, you know it's Team Australia. So that's where it started.


(L to R) Team Australia drivers Marcus Marshall, Alex Tagliani and Will Power
Mark Cipolloni

Craig, being the smart marketer, businessman as he is, he got it immediately. And his ideas started flowing. My ideas to him - -we complemented each other. So we formed a partnership. And the partnership is not in Walker Racing, although Walker Racing is a big component of this. The partnership is in the race program. And here again, I think it's a new concept.

The program is not just we put money in and we go racing. That's an entity on its own. There are a lot of decisions, a lot of investments, a lot of dedication. So we all invest in it. Craig and I and another gentleman called John Fish of Aussie Vineyards, who is really a sponsor partner, we all got together and we shared in this program.

So two concepts really came to the forefront. Even though the A1 Grand Prix came on with the flag-waving exercise, we were the first with this concept way back in the team with China. With Craig it was a no-brainer because being, you know, a passionate Australian and a racer at heart, and a businessman to boot, it was a perfect match.

Q. Do you see this as a model for Champ Car in the future? Can you see Champ Car having this sort of team concept for all the countries that they race in?

DERRICK WALKER: Well, I think it's certainly an idea that can be reproduced. It's not necessarily revolutionary, but it's becoming -- you know, we're scratching around, looking for ways to sell our wares and our series and our racing and attach to the fans. So we have to find new ways to invent ourselves.


The Team Australia 2007 Champ Car

This Team Australia is something that can be duplicated. But I would say, I don't think it has any viability unless it has real Australians involved. And that doesn't mean the owner renting a car as in A1 and call it Team Australia. I think the legitimacy comes because I'm willing to share, and Craig is wanting, desirous to be involved in all the headaches and everything that goes into a long-term investment in concepts, to actually get involved. Perhaps I wouldn't have the same synergy for this had I not lived in Australia when I was very, very young. My family emigrated here. I have an affiliation with the country.

It can be duplicated. It's just I think to legitimize it, you have to make sure, if it's Chinese or British, you have to have people involved who are real patriots of that country. Otherwise, I think it's a look-alike, and I don't think the fans buy that. I think they need more than that.

Q. As we see with stick-and-ball sports, soccer, for instance, football as they call it in much of the world, very much the fans get behind their team. So it's patriotic. From my perspective, I think Champ Car probably needs to consider it for China before they go there, even Korea and Japan, because the fans there or the potential fans there, are not that familiar with Champ Car as a brand on its own. What do you think? Should Champ Car try to use your team as an example to the different countries and try to form something?

DERRICK WALKER: Well, I'll bet you if you asked Kevin Kalkhoven that question, you'd have an absolute yes. And he's been on that trip for some time. He got the message when he heard Craig was seriously thinking of getting involved.

So absolutely, it works. But I still reinforce the point that it needs legitimacy to be viable, because the fans will not just see a logo on there and say it's Team Australia. The owners in Champ Car have to be willing to compromise their position as the God of their race team and share, because without that participation and that buy-in, it's just another commercial venture.

This is different. This is not just a commercial venture. This is a passionate Australian. We're going to have Australian mechanics, Australian drivers, we got owners. We've got to bring in Australians because how else can it be called Team Australia in my mind?

Q. How about the fact that you are going to have a Formula BMW team as well as an Atlantic team? How important is that ladder system to the whole team concept?


The Team Australia Formula BMW car

DERRICK WALKER: Very important. I mean, when you look at the Champ Car program, it was very evident early on, when we looked around to see where we could get Australian drivers, there isn't too many that are roaming around. So when we make a commitment to a Champ Car program like we have, and a cause, Team Australia, we need to look to the future. And the future isn't right here and now, it isn't next year, it's long-term.

So when Kevin revitalized the Atlantic Series, bingo, that's going to be a great series, we jumped up. We were the first team to step up to say we were going to be in there. The reason being, we need to find the next Marcus Marshall, the next Will Power, the next Alex Tagliani out of Australia. Even when you do it further, you say, we don't want to wait till they turn up in Atlantic, they may go to Europe sooner, we want to get them when they get rid of their nappies and put their shoes and shorts on and get them into BMW. So BMW, Atlantic, they all fit. They're all part of the family.

And Craig, over here in Australia, has got his V8 series, his Carrera Porsche series and his V8 Aussie series. He's got the tin tops covered here, and we've got the open-wheel guys in America, and all affiliated in this brand to put Australians on the map. It's a perfect fit, all of these series.

Q. I agree. From a more personal standpoint, for many years you kind of struggled as a team owner for money, sponsorship. How does it feel now to look over here and see three cars, backup cars, the colors, the people here? How does it feel to you, knowing how long you struggled?

DERRICK WALKER: Well, if you look at my 16-year career as an owner, I've had one other success in terms of getting my team on the map really that I had a direct impact, and that was the Valvoline Cummins concept of how two companies could work together. That was an idea that I developed, and we had six years of great sponsorship, had some great drivers. We really should have won a lot of races, but we didn't know how good we had it.

Then there was the drought. It was searching for ideas, no money. Once you get in that trough with no money, then it's really hard to convince everybody you're really good. Craig Gore had the confidence from last year to say, I'm going to do it. So it takes an opportunity for somebody to see that you've got an idea or can have ideas that can work, and Craig was smart enough, I hope, to see that.

So in answer to your question, when I look around, this is another one of those kind of success stories in my own personal success as a team that I'm very proud of. I'm especially proud of our people that we have. We've got some very loyal people we've had almost since I started. When they say, look, guys, I need three cars in Australia, there's not a Mutiny on the Bounty. They set about and they plan and they organize. So as much of what you see here is a personal success to me and Craig, it's really the people we've got around us has really made it all work. And it sounds like everybody says that, but it's reality as far as I'm concerned.

Q. What has been the fan reaction to your team? Has it been a lot of emails, a lot of fan support?

DERRICK WALKER: Oh, it's huge. And I do mean huge. I don't think any of us really know to what extent it's really going to materialize, to how big it's going to be. But it's going to be big. It's going to be huge. Because, you know, it's a very simple, basic principle here. People, you know, are affiliated with a car and with a team, whether it's a football team or whatever, they're going to attach themselves to it. So we got to tap into that and we got to give them what they want, which is success.

Q. As far as tying into this event, has it been a help to you that this event is so popular?

DERRICK WALKER:  For sure. I always think you look at this event as being consistently one of the most successful, well-promoted, well-supported events of all the series, and we've all been in racing a lot of years, seen a lot of different racetracks. This has been a model to it all. And I can say from the first day I arrived here to this day, it's never changed. You know, it's had its high attendances, a little bit softer attendances. But the way it's run, the professional way it's presented, the fan appeal of our kind of racing here is an absolute success.

The Team Australia concept has never been done here, with the amount of interest here is quite evident. It's going to show that they waited 15 years to get this, they're going to have a team kind of car and driver/drivers to root for. It's great payback. I think it's going to be a fantastic success for the promoters and obviously us.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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