OCT 2010

AFFABLE Englishman and Australian V8 Supercars (AVESCO) CEO Martin Whitaker has been on the pace since he was appointed to lead the country’s premier motor racing category in April.

While changes are afoot, he’s not here to stamp his mark on the brand.

“Oddly enough I’m not into all that,” says Whitaker, on the cusp of launching the Armor All Gold Coast 600 on the streets of Surfers Paradise.

“This job probably completes the full circle; I have pretty much done everything in the sport, apart from technically managing a race car which could turn into a complete disaster. There’s not a lot wrong with the way V8s are being run, it’s a pretty good model. That’s what it’s all about, colour, entertainment and excitement. I’m not about to break that mould and come up with my own fix, that’s not the way it’s done. I’m more interested in ensuring that the evolution of the V8 Supercars is done in the correct manner and we approach it with degree of verve and enthusiasm and vibrancy.

“V8s set out some years ago to evolve and we know the areas where it has to evolve. We have already talked about entertainment and we are also looking at making sure we are running in every state and territory in Australia and also how we spread our wings internationally.

“How we introduce a new platform for the cars of the future and things of that nature – so essentially there are a lot of things that were started before I even got here. I think my role is to make sure that all those things are brought to fruition with a very high level of professionalism.”

One of AVESCO’s signature events is The Armor All Gold Coast 600, the spectacular set to throttle $60 million into the local economy later this month. Organisers say ticket sales to date have surpassed the 205,000 sold last year.

The event has also had its share of vicissitude. Queensland State Government commissioned AVESCO to run it last year when egregious management threatened to derail it, ending with the sacking of then managers IMG.

AVESCO’s chairman Tony Cochrane has displayed plenty of derring-do in backing his brand.

V8 Supercars accounts for around 15 per cent of Australian sport sponsorship revenue with a total sponsorship income of around $110 million per annum. Total attendance at the 15 events last year was 1.73 million people – glued en masse to 29 cars battling for the chequered flag.

“This event creates jobs, it injects millions of dollars into the local economy and business and it brings people here to the Gold Coast and given the recent economic times it is now more important than ever that the people of the Gold Coast get behind this event,” he says.

“We have 16 Australian and international bands lined up for 600 Sounds presented by Hard Rock including music legends the Beach Boys, and 18 of the world’s greatest drivers teaming up with our home-grown heroes making a massive three days of racing and three huge nights of rocking.”

While Cochrane is au fait with V8s and the economic benefits to the Gold Coast, it’s first time on the Surfers’ grid for Whitaker. Not that he’s concerned. With 25 years experience in the highest echelons of the sport, he has worked for a number of key players including F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, arguably one of the world’s most savvy businessmen; former head of the FIA Max Mosley; Ron Dennis (then boss of F1 World Champions McLaren); and Jean-Marie Balestre – the former president of the Federation Internationale de Sport Automobile (FISA).

“Jean-Marie Balestre was the toughest of the lot, a radical Frenchman, but I loved rugby and so did he, so I was alright,” says Whitaker.

“They get what they find with me and hopefully at the end of the day people know my reputation and know my abilities and obviously know my strengths and weaknesses. I would like to think that I am bringing those to play as far as the business is concerned.”

Whitaker oversees 55 staff at AVESCO’s Nerang headquarters. He concedes the downturn has had an impact on motor racing generally, but there’s vitality in entertainment if you have the right product.

“Fundamentally it was as if I was coming into something completely fresh, everybody was experiencing global economic hardship whether you were in New York, London, Paris or Rome, Sydney or the Gold Coast,” he says.

“That’s when you really to need to make sure that the offering you have is the best. At the end of the day people still want to attend well run sporting events to entertain clients. When you are in a market of that nature, you need to do everything in your possible power to hold on to the business.

“It’s an extremely successful business in its own right. It is totally debt free, produces around $1 million a year in direct income for its major stakeholders, the teams and has still got enormous growth potential.”

V8 Supercars is a global phenomenon with races held in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and across the ditch in New Zealand. Closer to home, a new deal has been announced for Perth while a fresh 10-year agreement has been accelerated with Sandown in Melbourne.

“I think that sometimes we forget that our series is not just well known here in Australia, it is increasingly becoming well known around the world,” says Whitaker.

“There are very few championships, if any, outside Formula 1 and NASCAR that have the national and international following of V8 Supercars. The fact that FOX Sports in the US and ESPN Star throughout Asia are broadcast partners is a huge endorsement for V8 Supercars.

“The job that I have now is effectively CEO of a company that is genuinely the second or third most respected motor racing category in the world and growing. F1 is certainly at the top, but I would put V8s on a close second to NASCAR. Both recognise the value of entertainment.

“We are in the entertainment business and that’s very important for us and vitally important for our teams, sponsors and investors – but more importantly it’s relevant to our spectators.”

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