AutoInc’s shocking withdrawal of sponsorship from the Singapore Karting Championship

Written by Cheryl Tay on . Posted in Cheryl Tay Blog | Blog Post of Cheryl Tay

A drastic piece of news in the local motorsports scene was revealed just two days before the third round of the Singapore Karting Championship – title sponsor AutoInc pulled out their sponsorship from the Singapore Karting Championship (SKC). [Read more on the official SKC website here]

This is the third season of the SKC, the only national racing series of any form. Run by Singapore Motor Sport Association (SMSA) in its first year in 2010, the commercial rights of the SKC were then granted to the private sector from 2011 onwards.

Once in the hands of race promoter Havelock Speedway, the target was to raise the profile of the SKC and immediately, the SKC was fleshed out with ‘live’ video screening, camera coverage, a dedicated website, cash prizes for overall class winners, post-race highlight videos, broadcast on cable television and on-site entertainment such as free beverages and grid girls.

This year, the SKC has explored a new venue (other than Kartright Speedway) at the F1 track where the pit building is, with three of five rounds to be held there.

Title sponsor AutoInc also started their own racing team at the end of last year and they acquired the distributor rights for Italian go-kart brand Birel and karting tyre brand Vega so that they could expand on their motorsport solution for an all-rounded race team.

According to the official SKC website, there was a feedback session held on Wednesday night with SMSA, several team bosses and the race promoters Havelock Speedway. I was told by a few parties that the purpose of this session was to get suggestions and feedback on the SKC. Within the next 24 hours after the session was concluded, AutoInc made an announcement to withdraw its sponsorship of the SKC.

This is an extract of AutoInc’s mananging director Benjamin Tan’s words from the announcement:

“I am terribly disheartened to hear that some team bosses have made accusations and unfair comments about the promoters and sponsors. I am disgusted that after having spent close to a million dollars to develop and build this championship for the benefit of Singaporean drivers, there is so little appreciation and reciprocation from the team bosses. I understand that politics will exist in every sport, notably arising from personal agendas or profit, but now having experienced it personally as a sponsor, I no longer see any benefit in supporting the SKC financially. This is a business decision.”

“However, I will personally guarantee that the races will not be affected. Rounds 3 to 5 will continue to run, but with big budget cuts on media distribution which is one of the highest costs of the SKC. Our funds will be instead channelled toward AutoInc Racing’s driver developmental programmes and building other race series for the benefit of Singaporean drivers. We also have our eye on several other SKC driving talents whom we would like to develop.”

Round 3 of the SKC went on as planned with no disruption operationally, but there was no ‘live’ video screening, no commentary and no entertainment. Benjamin was present at the track to support his team AutoInc Racing.This is not the first time that Benjamin has spoken up about the local motorsports scene.

This is an extract of what Benjamin said previously in an article on the AutoInc website in June after he witnessed the SMSA elections:

“With what AutoInc has received from the SKC community, does anyone think that it is going to impress sponsors enough to contribute to this sport? Why complain about financial difficulty when we don’t even know how to treat our sponsors well? Why even bother to race when you can’t even respect the authorities and volunteers from SMSA, Singapore GP or SSC (Singapore Sports Council)?”

“I sincerely hope that everyone realise by now that we are just going to go around in circles if we still do not share the same vision and try build our motorsport industry together. Everyone needs to start sharing and contribute to the community without letting our personal interest get in the way of things. I believe as long as we stand as one and put our feet down for this sport, it is just a matter of time that our actions and voices will be seen and heard. There is no need to worry about having or not our own track. The key thing now is to build the software and intelligence first, together with the SMSA and SSC and everything else will fall in place. Politics will only serve a few, and ruin the sport for everyone.”

Ultimately, everyone just wants to race and hopefully help grow the motorsports industry. Politics are inevitable and it came as a shock to me when I was notified of AutoInc’s withdrawal (someone emailed me the link to the announcement).

More often than not, we wish that motorsports can just be left to on-track action, but unfortunately that’s not the case and off-track matters have a tendency of potentially ruining the sport. In F1 for example, the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) threatened to pull out of F1 and form their own breakaway series when they could not agree on the FIA’s proposed regulations for the 2010 season. Eventually that was solved, but it sent the sport into the dark for a while and relationships were hurt in the process.

The Singapore motorsport scene is a cosy one with our numbers and we can’t even get our permanent circuit without first running into a wall (wait, make that many walls). The drivers involved in the SKC range from as young as the nine-year-olds in Cadets all the way to the veterans above 50 years of age. That’s a pretty diverse age group and there is the potential of influence on these young minds, hence the emphasis on development.

There is no denying that motorsports is expensive and it is hard to find sponsors, so I hope this incident does not damage the confidence people hold of Singapore motorsports.

Spending some time after the last chequered flag was taken on Sunday, I spoke to Benjamin Tan, managing director of AutoInc, who shared with me why he pulled the plug on the SKC; some team bosses on their views about what happened, and the man in the spotlight, Yuey Tan, the owner of SKC promoter Havelock Speedway.

BENJAMIN TAN

 managing director of AutoInc, title sponsor of SKC, team boss of AutoInc Racing

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Q: Why did you decide to sponsor motorsports?

A: Coming back to when we first started, we are trying to build the sport for the younger ones so that the sport can be more recognised in this country. We also want to provide opportunities to young drivers who have the talent and potential to advance further. That is our purpose and we didn’t have the intention for tangible returns. Everyone knows how expensive motorsports is.

Q: What was your plan when you first came into motorsports?

A: When we first decided to sponsor the SKC, everything was unknown to us. The plan was to explore it for two to three years to learn about the sport and its basic infrastructure to see how we could help build it.

Q: Why did you decide to withdraw the sponsorship from the SKC?

A: After spending three-quarters of a million on the series to hype up its ambience and atmosphere and even bringing the series to the F1 track, it seems like there are one or two teams who do not appreciate what we have done and on the contrary, feel that the SKC wasn’t well done.

I’m disappointed to have spent so much money only to get this and also, it is demoralising to learn of these team bosses having their own personal agendas.

This is a business decision and I think it is unhealthy to have unsporting behaviour in the community. The organisers and sponsors are trying so hard and building the sport together, but what we get in return is slander, defamation, accusations.

Q: Nobody expected such a drastic measure from you. How did it lead to this?

A: No one should speak on behalf of the community and people should not be influenced by one or two persons who are protective of their own interests.

Q: How did it feel being at the SKC Round 3 this weekend?

A: I’m pleased to know that there are drivers who appreciate what we have done and have come up to say that they miss the ambience of before and that they want the media coverage. It makes me feel a bit comforted and I’m glad that they are responding to what we have done for them.

Q: Will there be a possibility of sponsoring the SKC again, at least complete this season?

A: For the community’s sake, AutoInc will re-explore the possibility of sponsoring the SKC again but issues have to be addressed and mindsets have to be positive.

Q: Will you still continue supporting motorsports?

A: Yes I will still sponsor motorsports, but not the SKC. I just personally feel that some of the claims through the feedback are untrue.

We will remain committed to what we planned previously, such as bringing the international kart race at Round 4. It’s called the AutoInc Marina Bay Karting Challenge and it will be held at night. It is a special SuperWinforce X30 Challenge and international karters such as Roberto Toninelli and Karol Basz are coming.

The purpose of this Challenge is to give locals a chance to race against international talent and learn from them. One of the things we have learnt since we first came into the scene was to create opportunity for such races to help increase competition in the field here. We hope that with this in place, whatever we have put in for motorsports will bring this sport to higher levels for Singaporeans.

Q: What about the AutoInc Racing Team?

A: The racing team will continue, just that we might be planning a different strategy for them now that we have funds released from what was meant for the SKC. We will also be supporting more new drivers with potential. AutoInc fully believes that everyone can be given a fair chance if they can prove themselves on the track.

RAYMOND LOW

team boss of Kartmaster Drakar Racing

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Q: How different has this round been from previous rounds?

A: Racing still continues, just that this weekend there wasn’t the blitz of the commentary, which does make it a bit more exciting, and there was also no ‘live’ video stream. Operationally, everything went well.

Q: What are your thoughts about AutoInc’s withdrawal of sponsorship from the SKC?

A: It’s a pity that AutoInc pulled out but I don’t think this will affect the racing. Hopefully the team bosses will pull it together. If AutoInc still has a little bit hope, hopefully they will come back.

We are always looking for sponsors to help. It can start from sponsorship of a series, which has to trickle down to the teams and the drivers. Through the series, teams can then be highlighted and gain exposure.

BENJAMIN GOH

team boss of BMS Racing

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Q: What are your thoughts on AutoInc’s withdrawal of sponsorship from the SKC?

A: It’s very sad that AutoInc wants to pull out from this event. AutoInc are the sponsors and they did great things for the community. But if they look at things on a better picture, like not making people feel that the series favour their drivers, people will come back. When the community is not together, that will kill the sport. Sponsorship of a series should be filtered down to drivers and benefiting them directly.

Q: Do you think there might have been a misunderstanding?

A: Maybe the way the message was brought across to AutoInc was wrong. To me it is a misunderstanding and the way they interpreted our feedback may be wrong. It’s a decision they made and we can’t stop it. You have to continue to see the next two rounds if more people are going to race or pull out.

Q: What do you think are some of the issues regarding the SKC?

A: There’s the conflict of interest within the promoters, organisers and the sponsors. We are not pointing fingers at anyone in particular. The ground and the drivers feel that this issue can be taken a look into and perhaps a better solution can be formed.

The SKC has to be fair and be managed by a separate party – the organiser and the sponsor are the same people. Yuey Tan is probably wearing too many hats. The community just feels Yuey should choose a side to stand on.

For one, people from the ground feel that it’s a little unfair in terms of the media coverage. People feel that more emphasis is being put on the AutoInc drivers compared to other drivers. It doesn’t help that Yuey is the consultant for AutoInc Racing Team and he controls the media section and is the one writing the website. Basically everything is being controlled by one person.

Q: How different do you think this round has been from previous rounds?

A: To be frank, after witnessing Round 3, I don’t know whether the people on the ground are missing anything. People will just continue to race. There are no commentators to spike up the event. We’ll have to see Round 4 – if there are more people coming back or dropping out. We have to look for the root of the problem.

Back to 2010 when we first started, there was no media and people just came to race and go home. Everyone is very happy, we have a fair game and there wasn’t so much politics around. Everyone is trying to beat each other in the correct way.

Q: One main difference between the pre-AutoInc SKC days and now, is the media exposure and distribution. This exposure might help our drivers to be noticed outside of Singapore.

A: I believe you need to get your basics correct. You cannot give the drivers the wrong idea. We are strict at BMS – just because you are good in Singapore does not mean you are good overseas. This brings me to the objectives of the SKC. SKC was started purely because we wanted the local drivers to learn how to drive correctly and know the rules, before going overseas to race instead of making a fool of themselves overseas and not know what to do.

I did not say media is not important. Media is important for any sport but it can come in at a certain stage, after the basics of the driver are taken care of. Media can help drivers to find sponsorship but we have to be realistic and train our drivers first, make sure they have a level head and not be complacent. Being top in Singapore does not mean you will drive well overseas or get a sponsorship from somebody.

We are not saying that the media is no good. I just think there are ways to make media better. Instead of someone managing the media by themselves, outsource it to an independent party for fair play and everyone gets fair share from the media. Media is good for everyone, maybe we just want it a different way.

Q: Do you think the SKC is meeting its objectives?

A: We need to go back and think about what the SKC is all about. It’s a field for people to start racing. I think the SKC can be done in a better way and more could have been achieved. If you don’t increase the driver field, how are we going to achieve the objectives set for SKC? We must get drivers to come back, increase the people. You’re looking at what comes first, what is more important to the series. There are always sponsors who give money because they want coverage for people to know about their branding so it’s just about branding for themselves and it does not filter down to the drivers.

It may be more difficult, but I think we can have the SKC at less cost. I feel that the sponsorship funds can be better allocated to build the series better, maybe increasing the competition level. If you cannot afford to have so much money from anybody then just make do with what you have and try to raise money and race like what we had in 2010. We had good fun and drivers are really happier. Most importantly, we have to bring back the drivers – No drivers, no show.

Q: What do you hope to see out of the SKC?

A: The two biggest things at hand now are to increase the driver field and deal with the conflict of interest. I hope that more people will come forward to help out in this series. It belongs to all the karters in Singapore, it doesn’t belong to me. Every driver that puts on the helmet and races in the SKC, I believe and think they have the right to know and say what they expect. If we can provide what they want to see and what they want to get, the crowd will come back.

SHAUN YIP

team boss of Veritas Racing

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Q: How will politics negatively affect the sport?

A: Politics negatively affect the sport by taking focus and energy away from real racing; the purpose of which is for drivers and teams to show their quality in a fair environment on and off the track. Anything that negatively affects true reflection of quality is very bad for racing.

Q: What do you think are some of the issues of the SKC that are worth looking into?

A: As of now (post withdrawal), I think we need a bit more time to see how things change and what issues remain, if any; what new issues arise, etc. before commenting on this.

Q: How important do you think the media is?

A: Like many others, I believe media is an essential part of modern racing. For years I’ve worked in racing at an Indycar, ALMS, GrandAm level. I’ve been up close to NASCAR too. In all those series’ I see the huge importance and influence of media. Absolutely critical is that the official series media is entirely separate from any sponsor or competitor team interest. It has to be for the series as a whole, without bias for or against any team. Each team is free to run their own team website promoting its own interests. Drivers are free to run their own websites to market themselves too.

It is very important that no serious driver or team ever rely on anyone or any entity which has any possibility of being less than 100% for their quickest advancement. Never let anyone unintentionally or otherwise, hobble your efforts.

Q: How different do you think this round has been from previous rounds?

A: It’s been essentially the same. There is less slightly less fanfare around it, but the drivers are all still out there racing their hearts out and this is great to see.

Q: What do you hope to see in the SKC?

A: It’s great to have a national karting championship. Things were good in 2010 with Nescafe as a sponsor, and got better in many ways over the years. In the long term I just hope for continued improvement in all areas of the SKC – new sponsors, fair structures for racing, accuracy and consistency of race official decisions and action, bigger grids.

YUEY TAN

Porsche Carrera Cup Asia racing driver, owner of SKC promoter Havelock Speedway, SKC ambassador and commentator

540446_377630562302409_116335114_nQ: There seems to be an issue about a conflict of interest derived from your multiple hat-wearing. What do you have to say?

A: I have three roles in the Singapore Karting Championship (SKC) – SKC ambassador, SKC commentator and owner of Havelock Speedway, race series organiser.

Wearing multiple hats isn’t a choice. There aren’t enough people to fill the shoes of all of the roles required in the motorsport industry, as it is still in its infancy. There are also other people in the industry who wear multiple hats and that happens for that same reason.

I’m fine with that because without people playing multiple roles, we won’t have motorsports in this country. Like me, these guys also get smashed when it suits certain members of the karting community. In addition, motorsports has a unique commercial model and if people can compare the developing SKC model to Porsche Carrera Cup Asia or Formula 1, this actually makes sense.

We constantly see car sponsors, such as ING, TATA Group, Petronas, Vodafone and many others sponsoring both teams and events. We saw Bernie Eccelstone funding teams, event and races out of his own pocket to develop Formula 1 as he struggled hard to make it work.

The audacity of some people out there – they comment that this is a multiple hat problem, yet there are some wearing multiple hats themselves who hold commercial motives.

If anyone is willing to take over any of the hats I’m wearing, I’d be cool with that. If you’d like to be an ambassador with the motorsports background and credentials and the international reach to the motorsport market, that would be good. If anyone would like to be a commentator or even take over the series to run, we’re open to that.

If the website maintenance and the post-race reporting can be funded, we will welcome that. Currently, one team boss has stepped forward to offer us assistance for the web portion. He wants to fix the multiple hat problem, but I believe that if he aids the series, then he’d instantly create a new multiple hat problem of his own. This is just another result of a lack of industry, players and liquidity. The provision of funds is also the responsibility of the hat wearer.

Q: What is your link to AutoInc?

A: AutoInc is the title sponsor of the SKC, like how SingTel is the title sponsor of the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix. After four years of persuading Benjamin Tan to support motorsports, he finally agreed and he first came onboard as a sponsor for me in Porsche Carrera Cup Asia during the 2010 Singapore Grand Prix. That was in September.

Then in November at the last round of the SKC 2010, I thought I could improve it with our teams knowledge so we tendered in March 2011 and within a month, breathed the new SKC. When I got that, then I proposed the idea of a holistic motorsport structure, starting with the sponsorship of a race series, to AutoInc. That was how it came about.

I’m not involved in the driving aspect of AutoInc Racing Team; Aaron and Richard Lim and Sasaki-san are the ones who coach them. This crew I’ve just mentioned, along with Rodolfo Avila had students in their race schools such as Nakajima and more recently, Kobayashi. There is no need for me to coach anyone! I only help the drivers for commercial purposes, such as advising them on videos and securing sponsorship and commercial deals.

In fact I have offered to help other teams with their sponsorships as well on numerous occasions.

Q: How do you feel about all that’s happening?

A: I’m utterly disappointed and grossly frustrated that things had to come to this stage. I could have utilised this money entirely for my own racing career but I chose to channel it to help grow and build the Singapore motorsport scene instead.

In fact, during Round 2 of this year’s SKC, I was offered an almost fully sponsored drive in the Audi R8 LMS Cup at the Ordos International Circuit but I had to sacrifice it because I had a responsibility towards SKC. Both SMSA and AutoInc were aware of this. For racing car drivers out there, you would understand what a sacrifice it is. It was a very tough decision to make.

Q: Did AutoInc’s withdrawal from the SKC come as a shock to you?

A: Yes, the two biggest shocks came from Benjamin Tan of AutoInc and one of the team bosses whom I’ve known a long time. I didn’t think Ben would pull out midway through the season and I didn’t realise that there were some team bosses who didn’t think that the media was good for the drivers or the teams or the sport. I think that commercially at this growth level, it only takes a few to spoil the party for the larger community and the greater good of Singapore motorsports.

Q: How does AutoInc’s withdrawal affect you?

A: It destroys all possibilities of sponsorship due to media, entertainment and publicity. The reason for the hype is to attract viewers and sponsors to see what the sport is supposed to be and entertainment for the masses to understand it easier.

The race series business model is not one that is new in this world, but new in Asia. Part of this model is to stay patient and invest in the media infrastructure, PR contacts and broadcast rights over a three- to five- year period.

Let me also say this – If racing is expensive and you need a large sponsor in the region of S$300,000 a year of Formula single-seater racing, then for sure you’d need a sponsor that is a wealthy company. Generally, wealthy companies have better marketing and motorsports like to have consumer type business sponsors due to its outreach. So, if the series can’t spend major funds building a big event, how will big serious sponsors arrive? No way. If you want Porsche Design as a sponsor and your website is cheap for example, I doubt they’d ever come.

Q: Will this affect funding for the organising of the race series, especially at the F1 track venue?

A: Costs of operations will still be covered to ensure that the races go on, as per contract, but there will be no highlight videos, no media distribution and no photographers at this stage. It scares me that some in the community believe that this is not required. To me, no media, distribution, entertainment and events around a race weekend is a sign of sure death in the true meaning of motorsport. Without the entertainment, the industry liquidity is greatly reduced. Motorsport isnt cheap either.

Q: How do you intend to address these concerns?

A: I don’t wish to work tirelessly to make a series happen if some of the community despises it. The fundamental difference is the understanding of the 50/50 motorsport rule. (For every $1, 50 cents goes to racing and 50 cents goes to the media generation, distribution and interface solution). Sportsmen need a stage to perform and we are developing a commercial platform for sponsors, media and PR.

The SKC has been built on years of motorsports and events contacts from our international racing division. Once again, there are those in the karting community who argue that to keep things simple, we should go back to the days of SKC in 2010. I think that is insane and I wouldn’t want to be part of that if SKC goes that way. I simply don’t agree or believe that running a simple kart series will be better for young Singaporean drivers. I believe this ideal as currently, I am actively driving on the international scene and media and distribution has funded my race team and drive.

I think boys like Bernie Eccelstone and Steve Jobs in their day were pioneers of this structure of business and thinking. For Bernie, to build a full solution that brings together man and machine, precision sport and entertainment, motorsport education and accurate coverage on races. For Steve, to build a technological solution that involves media generation through Pixar, distribution through iTunes, interfaces through iPads, iMacs, iPods. Package it together and call it lifestyle.

Without a commercial solution surrounding all motorsport, the industry doesn’t exist. This was smart and this is what I always had in mind when developing the Dorr McElrea Racing Team which we race in PCCA with and the SKC. It’s a massive mind map marketing platform for sport, a solution that could service sponsors and services as soon as arriving to the SKC, a motorsport series that would be more resilient and stable due to increased revenue streams, more interest from public, and more professional and higher standard approach from race teams and team bosses.

It will be hard to address these concerns unless there is a change in mindset. I would like the SKC, as it has been in 2011 and 2012, for the marketplace. It is helpful for us to learn from history and if we all study what has happened in certain parts of the world, I’d say that Formula 1, V8 Supercars Australia and Nascar are three very distinct business models that we should be inspired by. They managed to monetise massive funds to build big industry for motorsport. V8 Supercars and Nascar are phenomenal marketing platforms and are two places drivers really like to go to drive because of the massive salary packets.

For those who disagree, please contact me or the SMSA and alert us of your interest to run the SKC in the trim the teams complaining see fit along with the financial responsibilities. I’ve heard many say it can be done much cheaper.

Given said all this, it is a difficult situation. We should work together as an industry to further fund the sport so we can all go racing and take the multiple hat feature out in the future as more professionals are trained. Money is a zero sum game. If the privateers can’t do it with whoever pays with normal type businesses, perhaps aid or help from the Singapore sports community would be useful.

Cheryl Tay

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Singapore’s only female full-time motoring and motorsports photojournalist. Independent automotive consultant and prominent local motorsports personality Cheryl Tay is uniquely passionate about all things cars and motorsports. She also has a strong passion to share her interest and knowledge, hence having a dream to become the ‘Oprah Winfrey of cars and motorsports’ and create a multimedia platform for her sharing. - A female in a male-dominated world, Cheryl Tay is Singapore’s only female full-time motoring journalist and motorsports blogger and she regularly writes for prominent titles in Singapore, Asia and internationally. (See full list of titles that Cheryl Tay writes for here.)

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