Barely a week after motorsport enthusiasts in Singapore celebrated the official renewal of the Formula 1 contract, a dark cloud loomed when news of the withdrawal of the Singapore Karting Championship (SKC) title sponsor, AutoInc, broke. It came as a shock to me when someone alerted me of the official announcement made on the SKC website. That was Thursday – just two days before the third round of the SKC was to be held.
This call was made within 24 hours after a meeting was conducted by SMSA on Wednesday night with team bosses and the SKC promoters for a closed door forum. In the official announcement, Benjamin Tan, managing director of AutoInc said, “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.”
This is not the first time that Benjamin is expressing his unhappiness about what he has witnessed in the local motorsports fraternity. After witnessing the Singapore Motor Sports Association (SMSA) elections in June, he said, “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)?”
When I interviewed Benjamin for the first time back in 2011, he shared his vision of building a motorsport solution for the community, a solution that needed software and intelligence, as well as educating of mindset. From sponsoring local drivers in the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia and Ferrari Challenge Asia Pacific to becoming title sponsor of the SKC, Benjamin went on to invest in AutoInc Racing Team and also take on the distributor rights for Italian go-kart brand Birel and karting tyre brand Vega.
The SKC was run by SMSA for the 2010 season, before it was put up for tender to the private sector. Havelock Speedway, headed by Yuey Tan, also SKC commentator and ambassador, won a three-year contract to manage the SKC. Immediately, the SKC was glamourised. We saw ‘live’ video screening, camera coverage, increased media coverage in local publications, a dedicated website with regular news updates, cash prizes for overall class winners, post-race highlight videos, broadcast on cable television and on-site entertainment such as grid girls and free booze for spectators.
The SKC is the only national racing series of any kind in Singapore and it is a good stepping stone to developing driving talent, especially in the Cadet, Junior and Senior categories. What’s needed next is a progression, a structure for drivers to move up to. For that to happen, it requires money, faith and vision.
I understand that the costs to run the five-round SKC in 2010 was a ballpark figure of S$110,000, while the costs to run just one round of SKC is now close to S$100,000 per round. This year, the SKC also 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. Whether the numbers are accurate or not, there is definitely a substantial increase in costs to run the series. The bulk of this increased cost went to the commercial, media and publicity aspects of the SKC, which according to Yuey, is part of the plan to run the SKC akin to Formula 1. Another reason is also about investing substantially first, to instill confidence and woo potential investors.
His reason for boosting the profile of the SKC, I was told, is to emulate Formula 1 and its motorsport business formula (pun intended). While that might be admirable as it sets the tone for drivers in Singapore to be a better package for the international stage, it might have been too ambitious for the community.
I applaud his efforts for trying and I also give it to AutoInc for boldly putting money to help grow the sport, but motorsports in Singapore is still in its infancy and the significant jump in the SKC of 2010 and the SKC of 2011 might have been too much for some to accept. The general mindset of the local motorsport community is rather young and as much as Singapore has the wonderful abilities to host a world-class Formula 1 night race, I’m afraid I can’t say that we have matching levels of mindset.
No doubt the competitors of the SKC are the stars of the show and each weekend is the time for them to shine on stage, but motor racing is a lot more than just putting money in to get a vehicle and then drive as fast as you can. This increased hype and fanfare of the SKC may not make a difference to some, who will just put it past them and concentrate on racing hard for the win. Others however, feel that the additional publicity might be unnecessary, or rather, something that we can introduce in stages instead of going all out.
The sudden withdrawal of title sponsorship in the middle of the season is a drastic move and it sent a ripple of speculation, gossip, rumours, and also hurting of relationships in the process. SMSA, the local governing body of motorsports who sanctions the races; Singapore GP, the ones who officiates the races; Havelock Speedway, the SKC promoter and organiser; AutoInc, the title sponsor of the SKC; Kartright Speedway, one of two venues for the SKC; as well as the various teams and drivers, all have varying objectives, some of which overlap. Ultimately, everyone just wants a successful event.
But as it goes in all other industries, more money means more trouble.
Dato’ Jude Benny, a prominent maritime lawyer by profession with 30 years of experience in motorsports as a driver, series organiser and track owner of Kartright Speedway, commented about this issue, “What we can learn is that the moment something gets good, it never lasts. In the first two years, it was all about racing and fun. When it attracts attention and grows, it gets complicated. People get upset, hurt, unhappy etc.; divisions set in and ultimately deflation. So the lesson is – keep karting simple. Commercial issues and racing issues have some common ground, but they must be kept separate. When the lines are blurred, trouble follows. Strong leadership is needed to manage these issues.”
By “these issues”, he refers to the unhappiness among certain members of the community about the SKC and how it is run, which led to this shocking withdrawal of sponsorship by AutoInc.
Curious to know what some of “these issues” are, I spoke to team bosses Raymond Low (Kartmaster Drakar Racing), Benjamin Goh (BMS Racing) and Shaun Yip (Veritas Racing).
Benjamin Goh said, “The two biggest things at hand now are to increase the driver field and deal with the conflict of interest. There’s the conflict of interest within the promoters, organisers and the sponsors. 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.”
Just for added measure, Yuey is SKC ambassador, SKC commentator and owner of Havelock Speedway, race series organiser. He also has close links with AutoInc, as he was the one who brought AutoInc in, after managing to persuade Benjamin Tan to invest in motorsports. As a result, he also helps AutoInc Racing with their commercial matters.
Yuey’s association with AutoInc, on paper, is SKC promoter to SKC title sponsor. But some people feel that the relationship is too close for comfort. Upon being asked about the issue of him wearing one hat too many, Yuey’s response was, “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.”
He also opened up the opportunity for anyone to come forward and take over his job if they deem him unworthy or unsuitable. He added, “If anyone is willing to take over any of the hats I’m wearing, I’d be cool with that. 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.”
AutoInc will not let go of its vision to support and grow the local motorsports scene; just that SKC may not be in its portfolio any longer. AutoInc will re-channel the funds meant for SKC to invest deeper into their racing team and also other ways to grow the industry, such as the international kart challenge at the next round of the SKC where international karters will be brought in.
Benjamin Tan said that he will “re-explore the possibility of sponsoring the SKC again but issues have to be addressed and mindsets have to be positive”.
Some may find it strange that the SKC contract with AutoInc allows it to withdraw mid-way. From what I was told, the contract ensures that the operational aspect of the SKC is covered, but the withdrawal of AutoInc means all the fat is being trimmed and the media distribution parts are omitted. I was there at Round 3 last weekend and the races went on as per normal, just that the atmosphere was a lot quieter with no commentators, no ‘live’ video replays and no PA system even. Post-race, there were no updates on their website and I hear there will also not be any videos for their YouTube channel.
Whether Yuey is wearing one hat too many or AutoInc is looking for a reason to get out of the series or team bosses have personal agendas, such incidents are not healthy for the sport at all. 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. We have the talent in management of motorsports (just look at how we are able to run F1) but I think we need more time to be groomed.
The problem is, how much time can we afford?
It’s a race between time and money:
Resources to educate about motorsports -> people understand about motorsports -> more support and resources to educate about motorsports.
Education and changing of mindsets is a long-term process and hopefully all the efforts will come into fruitful effects so the cycle can keep on going, but the question is, how much will it cost before people get it?
I have been around the world to cover various motorsport events from karting to drifting to circuit racing, but I am not in position to advise on what can be done. To quote Dato’ Jude Benny, this unfortunate series of recent events is “a storm in a tea-cup”.
The Singapore motorsport community is small and cosy, but it will still be hard to get everyone to work together. Working for passion is highly admirable and it is the dollar that speaks louder for most cases. Question is, how long and how far can the dollar be stretched?
I can give one piece of advice though: Let’s put this behind us and focus on how we can combat this race between time and money.