Iracingone On One:/I David Seuss
January 18, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
RacingOne: Going back to the beginning, how did Northern Light become involved with the Indy Racing Northern Light Series?
David Seuss: Well, they approached us. We sponsored a car that failed to qualify for the 1999 Indianapolis 500 (Team Coulson’s). It actually never made a qualifying run. It was in line to go out to make its qualifying run, and if you remember there was rain that Sunday and the qualifying session got cut in half. It was in line three from the front to go out and make a qualifying run. And that rain is actually why the series and the Indianapolis 500 went back to a longer May. If you have qualifying on a Saturday and Sunday and that’s it and it rains, that’s sort of a problem. So, they saw our name on that car and they knew we were involved in car racing and they approached us about it.
RacingOne: Do you see Northern Light’s participation increasing in 2001 and what are some specific goals you have for the coming season?
Seuss: I think the real difference for us in 2001 will be that the seeds we planted last year will be coming to fruition. We’ve always had three goals: Increase the number of fans in the stands; increase the number of fans watching on TV; and increase the number of sponsors supporting teams. Last year we had some successes in those areas, both directly as a result of Northern Light’s involvement and sponsorship but also the success of the series marketing itself. And, really I think the public is coming to appreciate how great the racing is and the press is coming to appreciate how great the racing is. And that’s helping hugely. I think one of Northern Light’s most significant contributions was turning around press opinion about the series. The series is run by extremely confident and totally dedicated but very earnest and humble people. And earnest and humble doesn’t always work well in a PR setting. Sometimes you have to tell your story and not be willing to accept blame for things that aren’t your fault. When Northern Light got involved, we were able to articulate to the press the case for the series and we said it enough times in words that were always consistent so that the message was clear and simple, and members of the press started to pick up and that and members of the series started to pick up on that and repeat them over and over, and before long the public perception had turned in favor of Indy Racing. That’s huge, and that by itself will accomplish our other three goals.
We do have programs in place for each of those other activities. We have promotions that we kicked off with our Indy fantasy weekend for consumers. We’re working with the network on promotions oriented toward the TV audience. We have our advertising share sponsorship program where any advertiser on Northern Light who wants to be a sponsor of an Indy car can direct us to pay up to half the money they are paying us to the Indy team for the sponsor ship and we have some people who are going to take advantage of that in this coming year. And, I expect us to be working as hard with the press as we did last year. There have been some other things that we got involved in that helped the series: negotiating with important people in the industry and things like that.
I think it’s going to be an easier year. At the beginning of last year, Indy Racing was really fighting a lot of negative publicity, most of which was totally unjustified and had not really articulated its strong story. Boy, that’s not true right now. The press coverage is positive, fans are excited, track owners are competing for dates, It’s a different environment and one where it will be harder to show improvement because so much is good and there’s so much momentum that we’ll get to the end of the year and we’ll feel great about the year, but it’s going to be building on success instead of creating success.
RacingOne: Does the positive press and positive feelings invigorate you and make you really excited about what’s to come in 2001?
Seuss: It does. At the beginning of last year I spent two hours with a well-known national newspaper and I spent an hour-and-half of it on the painful split-up between CART and the IRL. I walked away from that and I said, ‘This is crazy’ that this particular reporter was so focused on this and couldn’t get his mind off of it. We never talked about car racing for the coming season. That wouldn’t happen now. If we went in there now we’d be talking about ‘Will Buddy repeat?’ ‘Who’s going to win the Indy 500?’ and ‘Will this be the year Sarah (Fisher) will win a race instead of leading a race?’ It would be all about racing if I had that same conversation with that same reporter today.
RacingOne: Where do you think the IRNLS is headed and how do you think it will get there?
Seuss: The strategy is a very clear one. It’s open-wheel, American, oval racing. That’s not to say we don’t welcome non-American drivers, we do, but we also welcome American drivers. Our fan base is Midwestern. That’s where it starts. That’s because there’s a built-in sprint car fan base there. Young American drivers coming up through open-wheel oval racing are driving sprint cars and there’s this terrific built-in -- not only for the racing but for the drivers -- there’s already a fan base that the drivers have built up. And also in the Southwest, you’d have to include that, as well. Emphasize our strengths; increase the number of events; compress the series so we don’t have large gaps in the schedule that will impact fan interest and be better for the teams -- basically a race every other weekend except for May. It’s a great TV package and that’s a pretty good strategy. There’s sort of nothing wrong. I think we’d all like to see maybe a small number of races more, maybe 16 someday. But, we have to make a success out of each and every event. Sell a lot of tickets, get a lot of people in the stands. We need to get off of this thing of measuring ourself by whether or not we can produce a Winston Cup-type turnout at these big tracks. We need to view a 50,000, 60,000 turnout as a terrific one and not say well, if it was Winston Cup we’d have 100,000. The fact of the matter is no other series can turn out those types of crowds. We’re the pinnacle for open-wheel racing and that’s a good place to be. Just do a good job of that, that’s the strategy.
RacingOne: You touched on the American vs. non-American driver issue. Some say the IRNLS doesn’t want that to happen, it wants only Americans. Why do you think people get that impression?
Seuss: That’s certainly not true. We have non-American drivers who not only are welcome but were very competitive and were cheered by the crowds when they did well. Rookie of the year, how’s that. The thing that Indy Racing is all about is access. It’s an affordable budget. You don’t have to show up as a driver with a $10 million sponsor in order to get to drive. It’s open access. Everybody has the same access to all the engines. Everyone has access to all the spec chassis, from maybe more than one manufacturer, but anybody can have any chassis that any other team has. You still have to make your choice, but there are no proprietary chassis and proprietary engines. Engine manufacturers have got to be willing to supply a large percentage of the field at a specified price in order to get their engines approved. It’s a cost-effective formula, and it’s cost-effective for non-American drivers to. They have an equal opportunity to come in and compete in the series, and they’re welcome to. But because it’s equal access and because the costs are reasonable, American drivers can compete, as well. There are other series where that’s not true. We don’t have the personal corporate sponsor practice in this country. There’s no race driver that a major bank will sort of follow around and pay an annual large amount of money to get him into the series. There are other parts of the world where that’s commonplace. And those drivers have a real advantage in the setting where the costs are very high and most teams can’t find a commercial sponsor to justify their efforts. In Indy Racing, you can have a commercial sponsor who is only interested in the exposure and the B-to-B selling opportunities so the driver instead of having to pay to drive can get paid to drive. And, that means that Americans can compete as well as non-Americans, but non-Americans have the same benefits from the system that the Americans do and they are cordially invited to come run our races.
RacingOne:Another impression out there is that the IRNLS is always on the verge of going under or falling apart. What do you say about that?
Seuss: I’m baffled by that view. Tony George has very substantial financial resources. He can afford to fund the IRL for as long as it’s required for it to be profitable. I personally don’t have access to the financial statements. I don’t know that this is not profitable, maybe it is. I believe it’s like a lot of new businesses, I’ve heard press reports that it’s still in investment mode. That’s fine. You’ve got a person here with very substantial financial resources, who has – if you combine the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the series together, I’d be astounded if that isn’t a very profitable combination. You also have an individual with a generational view. He’s not the first member of his family to run this show, and he doesn’t expect to be the last. He doesn’t expect his children to be the last, either. When you have somebody who’s very patient with a multi-generational view of business strategy, a person who’s worrying about what his grandchildren will have in Indy Racing as their legacy to inherit, and you have the financial resources to sustain a long-term plan and you control the most important race track in the world, boy, that’s a pretty unbeatable combination isn’t it. How can this lose?
RacingOne: What’s your take on the Oldsmobile situation and how it will affect the series?
Seuss: I don’t think it will affect it. It’s too bad. The Aurora’s a great car. But I think the series will change the name on the nameplate. GM has marketing goals around the series. I don’t think there’s any public embarrassment or any black eye for the series at all. Everyone views engine nameplates as a marketing thing. They’re just gonna do a different marketing program around it now.
RacingOne: Some of the sponsors that were around last year aren’t around this year for one reason or another. Is that cause for concern?
Seuss: You always hate to lose sponsors, but there’s always a turn in the sponsor world. You achieve your objectives with a particular audience with a particular marketing program and then you do a different one next time. Some amount of attrition is to be expected. There are some companies that have had some financial problems, and that’s sort of a much larger issue. But there are new sponsors coming in. Net-net, it’s going to be a much more impressive lineup this year for sponsors.
RacingOne: Such as Al Unser Jr. getting TV Guide associate sponsorship, when they used to sponsor in Winston Cup?
Seuss: One of the nice things there is it was Roush they were with, top of the line in NASCAR racing. What does that say about our series? There’s another nice part to that. TV Guide will be promoting the races in TV Guide. That was one of our projects at Northern Light, to get regular coverage of the racing schedule in TV Guide. In the end we didn’t do it, but one of our teams did it for us and that’s a terrific benefit.
RacingOne:Any chance that Northern Light might sponsor a car again?
Seuss: I don’t think so. Which car would we pick and which team? Our programs really have to be available to everyone.
RacingOne:What are you most looking forward to this season?
Seuss: I think this will be a more relaxing season in some ways because we’re not fighting negative publicity. I think it will be a fun season. I guess if I had to pick one thing I’m looking forward to, it’s the racing. The racing part of the series is what ultimately drives it. If I look at last year, with one repeat winner, finishes at like Texas, Sarah leading a race, boy the crowd stood and cheered. The crowd figured it out because when the driver she was following came in to pit and she went by start-finish and the board changed to show her number at the top, people just stood and cheered. It was an electric moment. I remember when Al Unser Jr. took the lead early in the season for the first time. The crowd stood and cheered. Those are the moments you really treasure. I’ve got to say we’ve got six new venues, too, and it’s going to be fun to go to the new tracks. It’s going to be a marketing challenge in those areas, but those a lot satisfaction from doing hard things well.
RacingOne:On a personal note, do you plan on racing again this season? (Seuss has racing experience, including the SCCA.)
Seuss: Yeah, I’m going to probably run the ACRL season in the east. I ran the predecessor season. We used to have the North American Pro Sports Car and it was the Sports 2000 Series. I was second in the national pro championship in that series in 1994, and Sports 2000s were my dream race cars. I always loved them. In 1995 they eliminated the series. I started moving up into the bigger cars, Trans-Am. Trans-Am is a little harder for me to do on a part-time basis the way I do. I did eight races last year of the 13 or 14, and an every-other-race Trans-Am team is a tough thing to maintain. Now that the ACRL has come back, I ran one ACRL race in 1995 on the West Coast in Phoenix and I was leading the race when my engine started to miss. We had a lot of oil dry on the track and I drove through the oil dry, this huge cloud, and my carburetor got fouled and I started to miss and dropped to third. And then this miss cleared up and I got back up to second. But, the guy who was running in first, he couldn’t have caught me and I was two seconds ahead of him when my engine started to miss, but, boy, I couldn’t catch him so I ended up second. It’s a great series. It’s really well-run. It’s run by the drivers and everybody just has a good time. It’s really what I race for. It’s an eight-race series now in the East so I think I’m gonna do the ACRL Pro Sports 2000 Series.
RacingOne:Back in the summer when Michael Andretti was looking for a job, it was rumored that he had a very high offer from someone involved in the IRNLS, and you’re name kept coming up. In fact Andretti has spoken highly of you and Northern Light as a title sponsor. Is there any truth to the rumor that you extended an offer to Andretti to run in the IRNLS?
Seuss: Northern Light never made a financial offer on behalf of Northern Light to Michael Andretti. I did get involved in discussions between potential teams and the IRL and the Andrettis. I was a good neutral party. I did a little shuttle diplomacy. I’ll tell you that very substantial offers were made to him, but not on behalf of Northern Light. I think we’re gonna see Michael Andretti involved in Indy Racing someday. I’m close to positive on that one. If you give me even odds on that, I’m ready to bet 1,000 bucks on it right here. I don’t know if he’ll be a driver or an owner or what but we’re gonna see Michael Andretti at a lot of our events someday, maybe not this season, but someday. Let’s say you’re a very successful driver, what do you do after you’re a driver? Become an owner. Nobody can become an owner in CART, it’s impossible. The economics put such a burden on the sponsorship sale, and it’s a franchise system. It’s a lot of stuff. Let’s say you want to be an owner in an open-wheel series at the top level. There’s only one reasonable alternative for that.