Honda's Acura In Race To Boost Rep As Performance Luxury

Honda's Acura brand has for the first time entered racing this year with a factory-backed team as part of an effort to boost its reputation as a performance luxury brand versus companies like BMW, Porsche and Audi.

Acura has three cars in the prototype division of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). The cars were developed by Santa Clarita, Calif.-based Honda Performance Development and are raced by Andretti Green Racing, Lowe's Fernandez Racing and Highcroft Racing.

Acura races in a prototype class called P2, whose million-dollar-plus vehicles look nothing like production cars, resembling instead the low-slung cars raced in Formula-style events. Porsche also fields vehicles in the P2 class, and Mazda also races. The larger LMP1 class vehicles--in which Audi is the only factory brand this year--are the most powerful cars in American Le Mans.

What makes the 12-event-per-year American Le Mans series unique in auto racing is that races have a free-for-all quality because four classes of vehicles--including modified Porsche, Ferrari, Panoz and Corvette production cars--race simultaneously on the same track, and rules are less strict even when it comes to fans' access to vehicles and teams: minutes before races, fans crowd the pre-race grid, swarming cars, snapping photos and even chatting up drivers.



"It's the most relevant series in racing today because the rules are open and flexible," says Robert Clarke, president of Honda Performance Development.

Wes Brown, automotive market consultant with Los Angeles-based marketing firm Iceology, says that Acura's success off the track and on the marketing circuit will depend on its not being shy about promoting the cars in advertising and PR, something that Acura's sibling, Honda--which made a name in CART and Formula--has done over the years.

"This is a much more affluent and educated audience, along the lines of Formula 1," he says. "I think what played into Honda's success in '80s and '90s--with younger guys especially--was the fact that Honda was so heavily involved in CART and F1, and they had strong marketing campaigns that tied into the fact that 'what we learn in racing is making its way into your vehicles in concrete ways'," he says.

Clarke alluded to that at a presentation at Lime Rock (Conn.) Park last week during the sixth race of the season. He said the Honda's premium division decided to enter racing to boost Acura's performance reputation and credibility both to consumers in the U.S. and Canada and worldwide as Acura expands into China and Japan.

"We joined American Le Mans because it gave us the clearest positioning versus world-class brands," he says. "American Honda wanted to establish Acura as a luxury and performance brand, so racing became a clear priority for Honda."

The fan base is relatively affluent and large, at least outside of the U.S. Per the Braselton, Ga.-based ALMS, 465 million households in 100 countries tuned in to broadcasts of ALMS races in 2006. A Nielsen Media study commissioned by the Series pegged the median age of ALMS fans at 41.7, with about half earning more than $90,000 per year, with 22.3% of fans having a net worth more than half a million dollars. Fifty-five percent of ALMS fans gave car-purchase advice within the previous six months, per Nielsen.

Clarke says Honda technology--such as VTEC (variable valve timing and lift electronic control), via F1, and metallurgic advances via Honda's CART program--are used in mass-production cars.

"That kind of message and positioning appeal to that 18-to-35-year-old guy into motor sports," says Brown. "That I can get a VTEC engine from the Formula 1 world in my car, for example - that clear linkage between motor sports and road vehicles that says you can get racing-bred performance in an everyday car--that has a tremendous effect on a brand's reputation."

And, while Honda touted its racing roots, Acura benefited as well, by extension. But Brown says that, as the Honda brand has evolved away from racing and as the company has moved to separate Acura and Honda - with separate design studios in separate buildings, for instance--Acura must create its own performance/lux image if it's going to compete with the likes of Audi and BMW, both of which strongly identify with racing.

"They have a brand promise and an emotional connection around it, and they spend a lot on motor sports. So Acura's success will depend on how are they going to market this activity to the consumer, so it's not just for the enthusiast. If they do it properly, it will help strengthen the Acura brand and its link with the male owner base."

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