An interview with Acura Brand Officer: JON IKEDA

Jon Ikeda and T.E. McHale
Jon Ikeda and T.E. McHale

T.E. McHALE: Good morning, everyone. I know this is about the 50th time I've said this this morning, but I've never said it into a microphone: Welcome to the "Acura" Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Those of you who visit us regularly for these media briefings know we typically do them with representatives from Honda Performance Development. Today we have a special guest. To my right is Acura brand officer Jon Ikeda. We're making Jon available to talk a little bit more about this sponsorship that came together after Toyota had it for so long.

Jon, welcome, and thanks for making the time for us today.

JON IKEDA: Thank you, everybody, for coming.

It's amazing to think about what's been going on. It's been about 65 days of whirlwind, hurricane speed to just try to get this whole thing together. But it's all come together. We're really, really excited about what's about to happen here.

T.E. McHALE: I've been to a number of events with you where you've had the opportunity to talk about our involvement with this event. One of the early things you've always mentioned was how you have a connection with this event from your childhood. Talk us a little through that. You grew up in Southern California.

JON IKEDA: Yeah, I'm in sales right now. I've been working on the sales side for about four years. Believe it or not, 26 years of my career at Honda I was a car designer. I worked in R&D.

As a kid growing up in California, loving cars, Ascot Speedway, California Speedway, Pomona Raceway, the Long Beach Grand Prix, wherever we could get racing in. My uncle was a very, very good guy. He took me around. This was one of those venues.

I used to watch a lot of cars race around Long Beach. It's dear and close to my heart. To believe that I will be a part of this great, historical event in this way is just amazing. It's an amazing thing.

T.E. McHALE: As you have heritage with this event, maybe we can talk at this point a little bit about Acura's racing heritage, which maybe isn't necessarily commonly known. Touch on that a little bit, if you would, please.

JON IKEDA: Yeah, sure.

About three and a half years ago we decided to refocus Acura back into “Precision Crafted Performance". The truth of the matter is, we are a performance brand. We're the performance division of Honda. That's where we originated. We really wanted to refocus the brand to performance.

So, we went down this recalibration here to start with a super car, with the NSX. After that, just a year after that, we were in the business of producing racecars with the Acura NSX GT3 program. Just a year right after that, we were teamed up unbelievably with Team Penske on the Acura DPi program.

The next step is where we are now, being the title sponsor of the Acura Grand Prix. It's just piece by piece. We're trying to reinforce [our performance image] and let everybody know that our heritage and history is in performance. That's what we do best. We're really proud of it. If you get a chance to walk through the atrium [of the Long Beach Convention Center on site], you see some of our history there.

Yeah, we're trying to go back to our roots and look into the future as to what we can do as a brand and push performance.

T.E. McHALE: This obviously doesn't happen in a vacuum. We want to recognize a couple of entities that really have brought us to this point. First, pay tribute to the job Toyota did to grow this event. Beyond that, talk about how fortunate we are to have the infrastructure in place with our promoters at the Long Beach Grand Prix who have been doing this for years and have it down to a science. I'm not sure we could have pulled all this together in 65 days if we didn't have their expertise to rely on. Pretty important, both of those aspects, in the growth of this event?

JON IKEDA: Yeah, we can't say enough about the city of Long Beach, and the promoters of the race. Once we decided to do this, their ability to work together with us was amazing. I think Toyota did a fantastic job of curating this race all these years. We're an innovative company. We want to look into the future. We feel that we could add new things and dimensions to what this race has been about. It’s a great foundation to build on, to move forward.

I think we're aligned [with the city and race promoter] in a lot of ways. I think the city is also looking to move forward. I lived in Long Beach for a while. I look at downtown compared to what it was 10, 15 years ago, it's completely changing.

I think the race, the city, the promotion, everything, everybody is aligned together to move this thing forward. Acura is really proud to be a part of that.

T.E. McHALE: We'll open it up to questions from the floor.

Q. The intrinsic value of having the Acura name attached with such a great race like this, have you been able to discover that in the southern California market?

JON IKEDA: I mean, that's the crazy thing. As you go around the track, like yesterday we were going through all the branding and everything that's out there, to some of the street signs being covered with the Acura name, it's amazing to think this is all going on.

It is a fantastic event. It's a weekend event. It's a family event. Jim [Michaelian, race promoter] and his team have done such a great job of making this event open to just not just racers, but an event to come to for everyone.

Our approach from the very beginning has been this is not just a Long Beach race, but a Los Angeles, a Southern California event. We wanted to invite everybody to come here and join us and celebrate what motorsport is all about.

Q. (No microphone.)

JON IKEDA: To tell you the truth, this is our home race. We're right up the street in Torrance. That's where our headquarters are. The other day the drivers came to the lobby [at American Honda and Acura] to say hello.

I think with the Acura name on this show, has generated a lot of involvement, a lot of excitement internally because this is one of the big things for us. We're all racers at heart at our company. We're really excited about this whole thing, yeah.

Q. From a branding perspective, this was for so long the Toyota Grand Prix, now it's not. How do you change that mindset and get your message out there?

JON IKEDA: I think first with the promoters, we have a good start. It's the first year. It's been about 60 days [since the sponsorship was announced]. It's our “first date". We're still just holding hands and seeing what we like about each other. We're trying to find what we're about a little bit.

I will tell you this much. One of the first things from a branding perspective that we looked at, if you haven't noticed, we went from the red and white Toyota [theme color] to the blue that is Acura. I think if you've been coming over the years, you probably are used to seeing things that are red. Right out of the box we wanted to change it to blue.

There's some familiarity, I'm sure. It is a racetrack. But over time we would like to amplify, do different things, do new things. We're an innovative company. We want to take whatever is new that we can bring in and enhance the whole experience. We're excited about that, yeah.

Q. This was on the radar as far as you knew Toyota was going away. How far back were talks from the Acura side to come in? Did the Grand Prix association come to you or did you go to them?

JON IKEDA: Well, we knew that Toyota was leaving. Like you said, this is our backyard. Internally, we had a lot of discussions. At the end, I think Jim [Michaelian] and his promotion team, we all got together. I'm sure they went through a list of people on their own that we don't even know about, and we talked a lot on the internal side how do we want to approach all this.

We came full circle. We just said, “This is the right thing. We would like to work with you". They would like to work with us. It was just a match made in heaven.

You could see how the teams at Acura and the AGPLB were working together to make this come together so quickly. It's been fantastic. It's been a fantastic decision and choice for us.

Q. (No microphone, on the possibility of the Celebrity Race returning)

JON IKEDA: I mean, those are questions that…, you're not the first one. We’ve talked about it internally. We can't commit to anything per se. Those types of events help enhance the fun, if you will, that a weekend like this could bring, a lot of our people on the marketing side are looking at things to do; something of that caliber to get the excitement back in.

Yeah, there's a lot of things that we're looking at historically that Toyota did right, some things that went away, some things that are still here. We're looking at everything right now, yeah.

T.E. McHALE: We intend to make this our event, put our imprint on it. We're not here to replicate what Toyota did, albeit very successfully for a very long time. This has become an Acura event. We intend to make it an Acura event. I'm not really sure what that looks like right now, after just 65 days to get us to this point. But there are going to be new things, innovative things, to make this an Acuraâ€'specific or Acuraâ€'branded event.

JON IKEDA: This is TE's event. He's the most passionate guy we could ever have representing us in racing. We'll make sure it's okay with you first before we throw anything out.

T.E. McHALE: Thank you.

JON IKEDA: Like we said, there's so many things that are happening in terms of marketing, social media, all these things happening around us. There are new things that we could explore going into the future. How do we apply some of those things into a race weekend? We're exploring all those avenues, seeing what we can do to amplify this event, make it as big as we can make it.

Q. One of the great things about this event is the showcase race on Saturday is IMSA, the showcase race on Sunday is IndyCar.

JON IKEDA: From our company's perspective, there's no qualms about it. We're Honda, and Acura. We’re connected at the hip. That's no secret. We think it's fantastic that we can showcase our abilities on both days at a very high caliber. If you look at drivers in the Honda stable, and the Acura stable, we have the best of the best.

The only thing interesting is Mr. Penske, who on Saturday is partner, yet we compete with his team on Sunday. Yeah, that just makes it more fun for all of us.

Q. The DPI program, any consideration having customer cars, expanding that program?

JON IKEDA: Talking with the Honda Performance Division guys [the racing arm for both Honda and Acura in North America], we're always looking for more, I'm sure. We have a very fast car. We like what we've got. Obviously, you could see what the car is capable of within Team Penske. If people are interested, I'm sure they'll be talking to us. We'll see what happens.

Q. Can you quantify how important this [Southern California] market is?

JON IKEDA: It's huge. If you look at our sales, we're very strong all over the country, but L.A. is L.A. I mean, I grew up here. It's a brand that was very, very strong in the past. We need to get it back, get going again.

If you look at all of our dealerships, their involvement, our southern California Acura dealers are sponsoring their own car, for instance. There's a lot of things going on. We got a lot of engagement. It's great to work with the dealer body and all our fans to amplify this thing.

It's a big market, and it's very, very important. It's our home market.

T.E. McHALE: That will wrap it up then. Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us.

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