Thursday, June 14, 2007

Q&A: Mike Accavitti Director Dodge Brand


MIKE ACCAVITTI (Director Dodge Brand and SRT Marketing and Communication)

OPENING REMARKS “It’s a very busy week for us here at Auburn Hills with the things going on at Dodge of course. We’ve got some new product introductions coming and the race coming to Michigan, our home track. I apologize for being late and I hope to make up for it with the quality of my responses.”

DID THE NEW NOSE FOR THE CHARGER AND THE AVENGER PUT YOU BEHIND? “The more change you have in an organization, the more change you have in a racecar, the more things you have to work on. I guess in all honesty I guess the teams underestimated the impact both of those changes were going to have. We tested the nose together several times last year. We all came to a conclusion. We all reached an agreement that it was the right thing to do. Every team had an input and every team agreed to that. When we put the nose on the car, it affected the suspension setup more on those downforce tracks than we had anticipated. It’s taken a little while to get our arms around what the issues were and get some action plans in place. At the same time, we’re trying to figure out the COT, so that’s really what kind of got us behind the 8 ball. We feel like we’re really picking up some steam now in our performance, average finish performance is showing it.”

CAN YOU EXPLAIN KASEY KAHNE’S PROBLEMS? “Kasey is the real deal. We have the utmost faith in Kasey and the Evernham Motorsports Organization. They’re a class act team, and they’re going to do what they need to do to get Kasey back in victory lane. You guys are more familiar with this sport than I am. It’s very difficult to explain how people can go from winning a whole boatload of races one year to not winning any races for a little while. We’ve seen it over and over again. Sometimes it’s called the sophomore jinx. Sometimes it’s called other things. Is it a surprise? I guess I’m always optimistic and I guess I always believe Kasey’s performance if he won six last year that’d he’d win 12 this year. The realities are this is not how this sport works. It’s a very humbling sport. It’s more humbling that golf as far as I’m concerned. Will Kasey get back on track? Absolutely, and we’re working with Ray to make that happen.”

WHAT DOES IT TELL YOU ABOUT NEWMAN’S SUCCESS WHILE THE OTHER DODGE TEAMS STRUGGLE? “This is one of the biggest issues we’ve had. We can go incredibly fast as a group for one lap. We saw this actually last year. Last year the hypothesis was that it’s a clean air issue. When the car it out in the clean air it can really kick some butt, but when it gets in the pack it has problems. That really is the genesis of what led to the nose redesign because the drivers describe the former nose, as while it provided a hell of a lot of front downforce, it led to a car that was somewhat unstable in the pack. The new nose was supposed to rectify that issue. Last year we did very well in poles. This year we’re doing equally as well. I think we have one less pole this year than we did at the same time last year. At some of the races we’ve had six guys qualify in the top 10, so we’ve figured that part out. What we’re working on now is how do we figure out the other 499 or 500 laps so that we can get these guys up in the top 10 where they really belong. It’s something we’re working on. We really don’t know the answer to that question, but we understand it’s not an issue that our cars don’t go fast because they do and we’re taking poles. During the race, is it something that’s happening on adjustments being made during the race? Is it tire wear? What is causing us to move back through the pack rather than stay up there in the front.“

DO YOU THINK YOU’RE MAKING PROGRESS? “Absolutely, and what I point to is average finish by manufacturer. We’re closing gap. We’ve actually have a downward trend particularly over the last five races. We feel that based on discussions we’re having with our teams, we’re making progress in the right direction. It’s just going to be a matter the time. The last couple of weeks Ryan was in there and but for another three minutes of rain, one way or the other, the other way would have been preferable, would have really helped him out. We’ve had some other situations this year where our guys just pitted at the wrong time. That’s a part of the sport that makes it exciting yet frustrating. It’s the stuff you cannot control, the breaks, and we just haven’t been able to catch a break this year. We’re not going to count on breaks. We’re going to count on performance and our performance is improving.”

DO YOU HAVE ALL YOUR MULTI-CAR CUP TEAMS SIGNED FOR NEXT SEASON? “Pretty close. We don’t talk about length of contracts, so I can’t talk specifically, but we have the current family either under contract or we’re in negotiations with them to lock them in for the next go-around.”

DO YOU EXPECT ANY DODGE TEAMS TO EXPAND NEXT SEASON? “We’re encouraging it where it makes sense. Not everybody is ready to expand to three or four cars, but it’s something we realize the benefits associated with multi-car teams and the guys that have approached us we’re certainly supportive of that and working with them in that regard. Those that can afford it, there’s economy to scale associated with it and then there’s the ability to get the feedback from three or four cars you can share. That’s why we’re seeing success we think, particularly with the Hendrick organization and the ability for them to share information with those four great cars they have.”

WHAT MAKES A TEAM READY TO EXPAND? “Internal resources generally. In order to field another car you’ve got to have another pit crew, you may have to have another engineering function. It’s not so easy to say ‘we’re already making 20 cars, why don’t we slap another number on it and find another driver.’ There are obviously resources. They have to have sponsors lined up. Some of the guys, it’s their strategic plan to expand their lineup and those guys that are the ones that are ready go do it and we could see it next season. Others, they really want to focus on what they have and improve the performance of the vehicles they have, so it’s really a team call and something we encourage. From our standpoint, our engineering work load and our resources, we’re capable of handling that. From our standpoint, it’s all good news, but we don’t want to push our teams into it. It’s got to be right for the groups and they have to have all those situations lined up I just described from the personnel standpoint, sponsor standpoint and efficiency standpoint.”

EXPLAIN HOW YOU UNDERESTIMATED WORK LOAD ON THE COT “What we underestimated was the workload both the new nose and the COT was going to challenge us with. On the COT, we really didn’t have as good a grasp as we should have on that vehicle and how it was going to perform in a pack. We can only test so much. It really wasn’t until late January that we had a lot more work to do and of course there wasn’t a lot of time to do that work. We’re learning as we go along, the teams are, taking actions to identify what the issues are. Again, I think they’re all making tremendous progress, particularly the Penske Organization. They’re doing quite well. Ganassi seems to have figured it out in some races. Ray’s group has had some moments of success in the COT and the Pettys are coming along. I think we’re making the right moves. The move to go 100 percent Dodge Avenger next year is welcomed by us so we can focus and the teams can focus on improving one model. We did initially like the idea of racing the Charger and Avenger, so from a marketing standpoint it was the right thing to do and a great thing to do, but now that the COT is kinda showing it actually can work, we’re fully supportive of NASCAR’s decision to go 100 percent next year.”

HAS THE COT DELIVERED LIKE YOU EXPECTED? “One of the biggest benefits we saw from a marketing perspective is that the COT resembles the production car we sell more so than the current Charger does, so from that standpoint, it has really over delivered. The camera shots from the bumper cam of the Dodge Avenger grille in the front is bringing us tremendous exposure and awareness to a brand new nameplate, and we’re excited about that. From a performance standpoint, one of the biggest reasons we support the COT is the safety it provides the drivers. The car of yesterday, the current Charger, we’ve seen guys spin around and flip on their roofs and they’re able to come out of there without a scratch and that’s great, but the COT really provides that extra safety we’re looking for. From a performance standpoint it does level the playing field. There’s no question about that. Unfortunately the playing field is a little tilted right now, but we believe in time we’re going to figure out what’s going on there and we’re going to close that gap and end up in victory lane in one of those Avengers.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT TEAMS GETTING PARTNERS? “It can be an expensive sport and if bringing in new partners can help on a couple of fronts. You bring in new capital, which will help. You develop either people, processes, to make your cars go faster, so from that standpoint, that’s one reason you want to bring in a partner. The other, which is kinda related, these partners that these guys are bringing in, they’re professional sports team managers and their network with other companies and other high rollers, you can actually leverage, and in Ray’s case, you’ll be able to bring new opportunities to his partners that he couldn’t before on a B to B basis. My participation in NASCAR as a sponsor is not only the exposure that I get on the track on Sunday with the association of the drivers on an ongoing basis but is also the ability to hook up with other partners, and it might not even be in racing. They might be other business partners that I can sell cars to or chewing gum to or sell headache powders to. I think it really does open up opportunities from that perspective.”

WHAT CAN YOU TELL THE FANS ABOUT KASEY KAHNE AND THE DODGES? “Like any sport, what you hope for is that you don’t have fair-weather fans and your fans understand you’re not going to hit a hole in one every time. You’re not going to win every basketball game. You’re not going to win every race. You go out there and you try and you make an exciting show for your fans and you give them something to root for. In Kasey’s case, and all the Dodge teams’ case, that’s what we’re focusing on. That’s what we’ve done this year. We’ve had some exciting moments. There’s been no question this has been an exciting season. Has it been a successful season? If you define success as the times you stand in victory lane, then we’re not having as much success as we’d like. From a standpoint of providing fans with exciting racing, good entertainment and something to root for, something they can watch on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon and not take a nap because it’s so exciting, I think we’re delivering that. For those Kasey Kahne fans out there, this kid is the real deal. We all know that. Just stay tuned because it’s just a matter of time until he’s back in victory lane.”

TALK ABOUT WHAT IT TAKES FOR A MANUFACTURER TO SUPPORT A NASCAR EFFORT “It’s a lot more from a car manufacturer’s standpoint than it is from just a regular sponsor who just provides money to the team and lets the team do kinda what they feel with it. From our standpoint, we do provide teams with some financial support, but we’re responsible for coming up with the gold standard for the engine as well as the vehicle itself. We have to work with the teams to make sure we get the consensus the right thing to do for the engine and for the body. It takes a heck of a coordination effort, not just outside the company with those race teams, but also within the company. We have 80,000 people working here at Chrysler and we have products we’re trying to develop for our street production cars. Some of those resources we use for racing, we either share with the street production folks or we take from the street production folks. There’s wind tunnel time we’re using. There’s engineering shaker post time we’re using, proving ground time we’re using to help our race program. It requires coordination and sales effort within the company to make that stuff happens.”

HAVE YOU TALKED WITH CEREBUS YET? “I had the pleasure of going to Manhattan last week and I met the leadership team there at Cerebus. We didn’t talk specifically about the racing program. Until the closing they’re still a potential buyer until the papers are signed. We’re reasonably confident it’s going to end up that way, but in meantime they can’t take an active involvement in our business. We’re sharing with them what our thoughts and ideas and strategies are. Again, we didn’t talk to them specifically on the motorsports program, but we talk about our marketing portfolio and our marketing effort. At that meeting I went to with the guys from the private equity firm, we brought in guys from our dealer council. Our dealer council consists of 16 of our dealers from throughout the country. They represent Dodge and Chrysler and Jeep. They’re our council. They’re our sounding board for the thoughts and ideas we have for all of our operations, including motorsports. The dealer council was very appreciative of our effort in motorsports. They’re very supportive. They shared that with the gang at Cerebus, so I don’t anticipate any change in our commitment in NASCAR. I’ve shared with you guys before that it’s a very important part of our marketing mix. That our participation in this sport brings brand awareness and attention and consideration and favorable opinion to the Dodge brand and all those things are very important. A lot of those NASCAR fans out there are Dodge customers. I’d like a whole lot more of them to be Dodge customers. That’s really where our focus is from a marketing and a support perspective and we continue to plan on being in NASCAR for the long term.”

COMMENT ON TOM LASORDA’S ROLE WITH NEW COMPANY “Chrysler LLC will be the name of the new company if everything goes through. Absolutely, Mr. Tom LaSorda is going to be the chairman and CEO of that company. He is supportive of the racing program. The last race he was able to go to was Bristol. It was a great race. Unfortunately, he’s got a lot of other things going on right now with the completion of the sale. He’s been unable to spend more time at the track, but our COO Eric Ridenhour will be at the Michigan race this weekend. He’s been to a few races this weekend as well. We enjoy support of our racing programs at the highest level of this organization. That’s really great because it helps us get some things done internally that might be a challenge if we didn’t have that kind of support. We’re committed to NASCAR. We believe it allows us to talk to customers and potential customers and we want to continue to participate in that.”

ARE YOU SURPRISED WITH TOYOTA’S STRUGGLES IN NASCAR? “This is a humbling sport, and I’m not surprised. This is tough. No one is going to come in and it’s not so easy. I get proposals from guys all the time. They tell me they want to start a NASCAR team and they want to have Dodge sponsor them. ‘It’s like you’ve never raced in this series before. You’ve never built a NASCAR. You’re really never been on a track. What makes you think this is not so easy. This is not just cars going around and around. This is a very difficult, very technologically important sport.’ So, is where Toyota’s at a surprise? Not at all. When will they be there? One thing I’ve learned in watching Toyota in the auto industry over the last 30 years is that they might not get it right out of the shoot but they learn very quickly and they change and they make tweaks and they improve. When that isn’t quite right, they make some more tweaks and they’ll change and they’ll improve and they’ll do that until they get it right. I can’t tell you if it’s going to be this year. They’ve had some pretty good success in the Busch Series and of course they’ve had some tremendous success in the truck series, so I know they’re a very capable organization. It’s just a matter of time until they make it to victory lane. Hopefully Dodge does it before, that’s all.”

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO FINISH WELL AND MAKE A GOOD IMPRESSION AT MICHIGAN? “Any race is of equal importance. Ah, I shouldn’t say that. I’ll be honest with you. Obviously the big races, the ones that get the biggest viewership, those are the ones you really want to win. The Daytona 500, the Pepsi race in the summer, the Indy race, the Chase races, the races where they’re getting a lot of viewership. The Michigan races, it becomes kinda like a personal pride thing. This is our backyard. I grew up here. This is where you really want to win, and it’s really not from a manufacturing company standpoint. I want to win anywhere. When it comes to Michigan, I want to win here because this is where I live. I’ve got neighbors that will either give me crap about not winning or give me compliments about the good performance. We get a lot of factory folks and a lot of employees that come in and watch this race on their own dime. We owe it to them as a motorsports organization to deliver a good show, so when Kasey won last year, even though it was a rain-shortened deal, it was huge. It was a huge deal for us, and we’ve had some good success at Michigan. I’m going to knock on some wood or something, but hopefully we’ll have a good show there on Sunday.”


“From the A-pillar back they’re pretty much a similar looking car. We do have some unique character lines on the front clip that differentiate. I’ve got a little bit different perspective than the other guys do. Our Charger, while it’s a fierce looking vehicle, it really does not resemble the production car at all, so from a marketing perspective, that COT looks more like a production Avenger. When you see it from the front on, it’s really an identifiable grille and head lamp and the front splitter, we have a front spoiler on the production car. It really looks like a production car, so from that perspective, I’m really more excited about it more than continuing with the Charger. The Charger is a great car. I think it’s real fierce looking and it’s intense and it’s real dramatic to see the thing on the track, but from a marketing perspective I’m really all right about the COT.”

HOW DO RAINOUTS AND TV RATINGS CHALLENGE MANUFACTURERS? “That’s a big issue. I don’t want to say it’s a show stopping issue, but no pun intended, it’s really come on to our radar screen the last couple of weeks. It’s really ridiculous. You can’t control it. You’re not going to build domed stadiums, so you’re going to have to race outside. How do you manage that? Do you schedule more races on Saturday with the spill over on Sunday. The rainouts and Monday races just aren’t good from a fans’ perspective and an advertisers’ perspective. You’re not going to get the same rating points you really wanted to, so it’s going to affect your return and it’s going to affect the equation of how much you should invest in a sport or the marketing media. I don’t know if this is unusual. It seems unusual. They’re saying no chance of rain up here on Sunday, but we’ll see about that. Hopefully we’ll get a dry one in. I’m kind of perplexed. In some parts of the country I’m reading there’s a drought. It needs to be fixed. I don’t know what the solution is, but it is something we’re looking at from an advertising perspective. It’s going to take some analysis by the network folks and the NASCAR folks to identify. Maybe they hedge their bets. There’s all kind of data available nowadays. While you can’t predict whether it’s going to rain in Atlanta on March 20, you can look over history to see if it’s more likely or not that it’s going to happen there. I don’t want to get too scientific about how they do it, but some of the things they’re going to have to weigh out. One way is we just don’t do anything and we roll the dice and if it rains, it rains. Last year we didn’t have this issue. I don’t know if this is just an anomaly or if it’s a sign of things to come.”
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