Event attracts $50 million: Super Bowl in the desert

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The green flag drops on one of motorsports' most unusual events this week, when more than 230 off-road vehicles ranging from motorcycles to trucks will race 1,000 miles down Mexico's Baja Peninsula over three days, from Nov. 20-23.

The 35th annual Tecate Score Baja 1000 pits scrappy amateurs in homemade dune buggies against race drivers from professional open-wheel and sportscar racing circuits in a grueling event that many vehicles will not finish, due to crashes and obstacles.

Its diverse appeal to consumers at the higher and lower end of the income spectrum draws sponsors such as Ford Motor Co.'s local dealer groups, Coca-Cola Co. and Tecate beer. But the event has also spawned many smaller competitions within the race, which has 24 different vehicle classes, allowing smaller sponsors wide latitude for customized promotions. Total sponsorship dollars involved in Baja 1000 surpasses $50 million, according to organizers. With 235 vehicles entered and 250,000 spectators expected during the race, the event is billed as the Super Bowl of desert racing.

race in a race

Centrix Financial, an Englewood, Colo.-based provider of auto loans to "credit challenged" consumers, is centering its entire $1 million marketing budget around "The Ultimate Baja Challenge," a race among seven dune cruisers being driven by relay teams.

"Sponsoring three cars in an adventurous race like this proves we're on the cutting edge, plus we're giving our [business-to-business] customers a chance to actually drive in the race," said Robert Sutton, Centrix's CEO, who will personally compete in this year's event. The top 20 dealerships who use Centrix's third party lending services most heavily will qualify for a drawing for two people to compete in next year's Baja 1000, Mr. Sutton said.

Yokohama Tire Corp., title sponsor of the seven-car competition, says the "Ultimate Baja" race allows a lesser-known brand to be showcased prominently in one of the world's most legendary motorsports events.

"We get a lot of mileage out of our marketing dollars here because it lets us prove our tires' performance under pressure, and it captures consumers' imaginations," said Art Michalik, director of marketing for Fullerton, Calif.-based Yokohama.

Other sponsors harnessing the Baja 1000 for year-round publicity purposes include American Honda Motorcycle Division, Terrible Herbst Corp. and Johnson Controls. The companies, along with Centrix, will be part of a 60-minute documentary showcasing the race saga of each company's sponsored team in this year's race. The program is set to air on HDNet in early 2003, and later in the year on cable TV's Speed Channel.

Off-roading in Baja has become a popular new year-round corporate hospitality lure, replacing pro-am golf events, says Mr. Michalik, who brings tire dealers to the race course through Wide Open Baja, a Santa Margarita, Calif.-based company that provides tours and turnkey racing services.

"The obstacles in this race are unbelievable, and demonstrating our tires in these conditions creates a one-on-one bond with both the business channel and the consumer that would be hard to get through Nascar," said Mr. Michalik.

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