SBJ/October 23 - 29, 2006/This Weeks News

Lowe’s helps American Le Mans build speed

While a slew of photographers gathered around the newly unveiled Lowe’s Acura, Scott Atherton, president of the American Le Mans Series, stood to the side wearing the satisfied look of the cat that ate the canary.

Luis Diaz (left) and Adrian Fernandez will drive
for the two Lowe’s Acura teams.
For much of that late September weekend at Road Atlanta, Atherton had sold his constituents on the idea that “The best is yet to come.” Lowe’s entry into ALMS racing had much to do with his message.

Never before had a major retailer such as Lowe’s, with all of its activation muscle, jumped into Atherton’s eight-year-old sports car circuit.

“This is a significant breakthrough for us,” Atherton said.

The ALMS season came to a close last weekend at Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. Its 10-race schedule will expand to 12 races in 2007 with a roster of sponsors more formidable than it’s ever been. Seldom has the series, which is known for its high-end manufacturers such as Porsche, Audi, Maserati and Ferrari, been able to recruit beyond its endemic sponsors.

While familiar racing brands Pirelli, Michelin, Sunoco and others, along with the manufacturers, have propped up the series for years, ALMS next season will sport a roster that includes Lowe’s, Jean Richard Swiss watches, XM Satellite Radio and Klein Tools.

Atherton is still hunting for a title sponsor willing to pay seven figures annually.

The series wouldn’t have survived this long without the support of the endemics, Atherton concedes, but they generally don’t pack the activation punch needed for ALMS to announce its presence in a market in the weeks leading up to a race.

Lowe’s can deliver that with promotions, driver appearances and other methods it has used with its NASCAR sponsorships.

“Lowe’s is famous for activating its sponsorship with in-store promotions, driver appearances, show-car appearances,” Atherton said. “They’ve got a team of people working two, three, four weeks in advance of each race in a market, bringing attention to the fact that the race is coming. That’s the kind of activation that, frankly, we lack.”

While Lowe’s CEO Robert Niblock wouldn’t disclose how much the company will spend in 2007 on its ALMS sponsorship, the most expensive deals generally go for $3 million to $4 million a year.

Niblock, who attended his first ALMS event at Road Atlanta, said his company will be aggressive with its sponsorship.

The two Lowe’s Acura teams will each feature a Mexican driver, Adrian Fernandez and Luis Diaz, both of whom will play significantly into the company’s Hispanic marketing. Lowe’s had an existing relationship with Fernandez Racing, which along with Acura brought the home-improvement giant to ALMS.

“We’ll be using Adrian in some Spanish-language commercials, Adrian and Luis both will do appearances at various stores and distribution centers,” Niblock said. “It will be a very integrated marketing program that will utilize both of them to promote the Lowe’s brand, Fernandez racing and the American Le Mans Series.

“Hispanic marketing is growing at an alarming rate for us. It’s one of the fastest-growing segments of our marketing program. A lot of it is driven by the demographics here in the U.S. … When you look at our stores, we’ve integrated bilingual signage throughout and we try to make our stores — the way they’re staffed — reflective of the markets we do business in.”

Atherton knows that ALMS isn’t prepared to trade paint with NASCAR, but he wouldn’t mind borrowing some of its more effective traits, whether it’s reaching the consumer or promoting business-to-business opportunities.

On the same day that Lowe’s unveiled its new Acura teams, Klein Tools vice president Alan Frakes had a meeting scheduled with Lowe’s marketers to explore a possible relationship. Klein Tools, ALMS’ official hand tool, are sold in Lowe’s stores.

“We’re about to turn a big corner,” Atherton said. “The sponsors in NASCAR have rewritten the book on activation and I don’t know that we’ll ever be that mainstream … but we need more sponsors doing things in the marketplace.”

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