SBJ/July 10 - 16, 2006/This Weeks News

Sponsors like idea of Canadian NASCAR stop

Canada’s viability as an untapped market for NASCAR has sponsors intrigued about the possibility of a Busch Series race in Montreal next year.

Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, home to
Formula One, could get a Busch Series race.
The unique setting — a manmade island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River — the European flair of the city and the energy surrounding expansion already has sparked a buzz among sponsors, even though it remains uncertain if an event can be worked into the 2007 schedule.

“There is a huge demand there for racing,” said Mike Accavitti, Dodge’s director of motorsports marketing, who spent 2005 as the vice president of marketing for Chrysler Canada. “They don’t have the big tracks in Canada, but the fans are very passionate, they sell out the races and the drivers are treated like rock stars.”

NASCAR has scoped out Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a city-owned track in Montreal, as the venue for a Canadian event. Busch races have been held in Mexico City the past two seasons, and while it’s taken a while for some sponsors to warm to that locale, Montreal has drawn immediate interest because many companies market heavily in Canada.

“We have a Canadian division and we work very closely with them. The demographics of the Canadian customer are very similar to the U.S. customer,” said Nancy Davis, the building brands with customers manager for Unilever, whose brands include Lawry’s, Wishbone and Slim Fast. “Many of the food segments are similar, with a few exceptions, whereas in Mexico it’s very different, so we’re very excited if this happens.”

In Mexico City, Rockwell Automation was one of just three sponsors that rented large hospitality tents for about $9,000 (compared with about $5,000 for most events), using the weekend of the Telcel-Motorola 200 in March to hold its annual sales meeting for Mexico and Central America. Corona, a track sponsor, and Timken Bearings were the other two. Ten to 15 sponsors normally rent tents on a given weekend, and markets such as Chicago and Atlanta draw many more.

Companies would be more likely to take advantage of the hospitality opportunities in Montreal, Accavitti said.

“Now that we’re going to Canada,” Rockwell President Joe Swann said, “it makes you wonder why we didn’t think about this previously.”

“Canadians are very predisposed to American companies and American brands,” Mount Allison University marketing professor Peter Sianchuk said of Canada’s 30 million consumers, 80 percent of whom live within 75 miles of the U.S. border. “This is very fertile territory.”

NASCAR maintains that while expanding into Canada is a priority, nothing is imminent for 2007. CEO Brian France said during his midseason news conference that Montreal is the right place. Now it’s just a matter of when the right time will be.

The stage has been set for NASCAR’s move north of the border for two years, first with the establishment of a NASCAR Canada office — a joint venture between NASCAR and TSN in 2004 — and the addition of Canadian-based sponsors.

But in Montreal, the issue is a lightning rod because the entry of a NASCAR race could mean the end of the Champ Car World Series, which will run its fifth annual race in Montreal on Aug. 27. Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a road course on the island of Île Notre-Dame near the city, is permitted two races a year on the municipally owned land, which also serves as a favorite summertime park for locals.

The popular Formula One race, the Grand Prix of Canada, has a stronghold on one date with a contract through 2011. The F1 race drew 119,000 fans for its June 25 event, whereas the Champ Car race drew a total of 95,000 fans over three days in 2005. Champ Car organizers are hoping for an F1-like turnout for its event next month to help build its case to stay in Montreal.

Normand Legault, the F1 organizer, recently purchased exclusive rights to schedule races at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and has publicly expressed interest in attracting a NASCAR event.

Canadian fans have made their influence known at NASCAR events in the United States. Michigan International Speedway reports that 8 percent of its ticket holders are from Canada (the track seats 137,243). The speedway, which is about 90 minutes from the border, also said that its Canadian fan base grew 23 percent from 2003 to 2005.

New Hampshire International Speedway, which is about four hours from the border, counts about 2 percent of its ticket holders from Canada, mostly Quebec.

“Canadian fans have long supported NASCAR races in the Northeast and the TV ratings in Canada are solid, so fans north of the border will support a race,” said Mike Bartelli, senior vice president for motorsports at Millsport Marketing, whose clients include Yum! Brands, Tylenol and XM Satellite Radio. “I believe many sponsors will see this development positively, even more favorably than the addition of Mexico City.”

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