Many times I tell people looking to do the next big thing or to “be bold” that the title of my next book will be “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time,” as we have seen so many smart entrepreneurial ideas come and go because they were too early in the process, or underfunded, or the founder was simply too close and too passionate about his or her idea that they weren’t able to LISTEN to others and morph into what is coming next. Pioneers, it is also often said, end up with arrows in the back because they are first over the hill. It’s not that you shouldn’t try; it’s that you always have to be willing to have others see the potential and take it from there.
It is with that in mind that we ventured to the far end of my home borough of Brooklyn Saturday to check out a pioneering venture deep on capital and long on potential; Formula E. Now having been in and around the pits and tracks of NASCAR, CART, Drag Racing and Indy Car, I have seen firsthand the passion and the brand power of those involved in racing; big money, big ideas, big sounds, big personalities and big stages; all drawing to their core audience and pulling in partners looking to be exposed and activated around the craziness of racing. We have also seen the massive struggles that racing takes on with its big cost and sometimes, its inability to morph and adapt to a new audience while keeping the core sated. Couple that with the competition in the marketplace, fandom that wants things in short, albeit fast spurts, and the challenges of bringing massive events to big cities, and you have the challenge.
That’s where Formula E has its opportunity. The biggest challenge is probably getting a race done in the New York area. Formula 1 has tried and failed to find the location and the financing to deliver in the area; NASCAR danced with building a track and left, with only Pocono and Watkins Glen being the closest outposts; IndyCar has talked but never found the right mix either, giving Formula E the first window of opportunity since CART brought a race in and around the Meadowlands in the 1980’s, and Brooklyn, especially Red Hook, which is hard by New York harbor but nowhere near a subway line, certainly isn’t New Jersey. But there it was on Saturday, in a converted warehouse area, replete with VR, whirring cars, an international audience and some interesting potential to grow. Here are some thoughts in why.
It Speaks To A Generation Not Used To Traditional Racing, While Giving The Core Fan His or Her Due: If you have been to any professional race, the thing you remember most is the noise. Loud cars, the smell of the track, the Days of Thunder. Formula E is not that; it whirrs and buzzes but the deafening roar is not there with cars that are both FAST and Electric. That appeals to what was seen yesterday; kids, families and the ability to execute a race of this size in and around a city. The race was literally a few blocks from residences (which presents it’s on logistical issues), and the noise factor changed, but did not diminish, the joy of racing. 140 MPH is still wicked fast for a road course, but you can get up close without the ear splitting, and to try and build a future generation who can get that close without fear of hearing loss, says that you can cultivate new fans.
It Has The Potential For Elite Brands To Activate, While Bringing In New Brands As Well: Your saw many of the elite motorsports brands on site with advertising, but there was also a new wave of companies one might not see around racing; clean energy, solar power, conservation companies, who may not find a fit in traditional racing. Electric cars can literally be the hybrid for racing, offering the blitz of the past with a nod to the future. That appeal again speaks to a new audience while not abandoning the old. BTW one great irony, the New York base for TESLA was only a few blocks from the course, with no Elon Musk company involvement yet involved in the business. More opportunity for the future probably.
It Ties Well With New Engagement Points For Millennials: The Fan Zone was full of VR demos, drones and robotics, as well as a smattering of esports; all things that a new younger audience can engage with. Those areas all tied well with sponsor activation from Visa, BMW and Jaguar to name a few and the gaming activation drew in a host of younger fans who were more interested in doing than watching. Having Richard Branson and Virgin racing involved, and winning on Saturday also helped with the hip and cool. Then there is the opportunity to tie to causes; millennials will be more brand loyal when they see an opportunity to tie to a bigger issue so safer, cleaner environments can drive a new racing fan to Formula E with its safe for the environment without losing the excitement of racing theme. That’s a great opportunity for massive auto brands to engage with a younger consumer, and becomes a win for all involved.
Connecting with STEM: The great opportunity in the US, especially in inner cities, is to tie sport with education initiatives, especially Science Technology Engineering and Math, known as the core curriculum element STEM, that makes things educational and FUN. Formula E is all about that base and is a prime way to have teachable lessons around something that is sleek, fast and engaging. Now that’s not to say that all of racing don’t try and use the latest in data and technology to be successful. The difference is Formula E is focused on clean tech TODAY and going forward. It is the first area of engagement, which sets it apart from other brands of motorsports which are more established.
It Is A Great Entry Point Into All Forms Of Racing For New Brands: Racing is a VERY expensive sport to engage with. Because of its disruptive model, its tech and more millennial focus and its scaled down event footprint, Formula E can be a great entry point for brands who see F1 or NASCAR has cost prohibitive for engagement. Scaled down doesn’t mean cheap. But it does mean being tailored to a different demo that might not be the same as other forms of racing.
Lastly, Formula E Cracked The New York Code: It probably didn’t make money and it wasn’t millions of people, but the fact that the race was staged in New York, where brands can touch and feel and experience the circuit without traveling to Pocono or Lime Rock or Las Vegas, was very important. It was precedent setting, with lots of best practices learned for when the race returns next year. Consistency of venue, and being involved YEAR ROUND in the fabric of a community is key to success not just in New York, but in North America.
Is Formula E the be all and end all for success in racing in the future? Too soon to say. There are lots of challenges to overcome, one of which is the car switch when batteries run low (a new form of refueling) along with better storytelling of the drivers and teams, more social and mobile engagement and finding ways to operate in the most cost efficient way possible.
However for a first pass, it is impressive to see where the circuit has come in a short time, and more importantly where it can go, mixing speed, brand disruption and technology. Formula E was great to experience, and will be one to watch as a property.