Championship Off Road Racing (CORR) has gotten a taste for the road.
While the short-course, off-road racing series plans to stick to its 100 mph rocky, off-road rides and stomach-lurching jumps, the series' new owner wants to expand the circuit's corn-fed Midwestern roots eventually to race nationwide.
That possibility excites the tire manufacturers involved in the series, including Goodyear, Michelin North America Inc.'s BFGoodrich brand, Kumho Tire USA Inc., Maxxis International, Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp. and Pit Bull Tire Co.
``The sport, in my opinion, is at the foothills of the mountain as far as popularity goes,'' said Mike Leverington, marketing director for Kumho Tire USA Inc., which is reveling in its first year as official tire sponsor.
Jim Baldwin, an off-road racer and major land developer in Southern California, bought the series in February from founder Marty Reid. ``He wants to take it from coast to coast,'' said Brad Folck, CORR's director of public relations. ``He wants it to be as big as NASCAR. That's his goal, and he's really putting a lot of resources toward taking us to the next level.''
Based in Indianapolis, CORR was founded in 1997 with its first races in 1998. The short-course series runs eight divisions of vehicles, ranging from Pro-4 trucks to Stock Truck and Super Buggy. The series covers seven events each year, with two rounds of racing at each weekend event.
It averages 120 to 125 drivers who hail from about 20 different states and several Canadian provinces. Most of the racing tracks are built into the natural terrain of the land, while some tracks use existing dirt ovals. Most of the tracks are about a mile long, CORR said. Lucas Oil is the series' title sponsor for all eight divisions.
The first move out of farm country is to Southern California, where CORR will run an event this September in San Diego. In a statement in February, Mr. Baldwin said Southern California will be a ``key ingredient'' for CORR's growth.
``California fans, sponsors and racers have been waiting for CORR to bring its show to the West Coast,'' he said in the statement. ``This will happen very quickly. Several potential Southern California locations are presently being looked at.''
For the tire makers involved, the possibility of an expanding CORR is just one reason they've hitched their racing wagons to the series.
Mr. Leverington isn't shy about his true motives when it comes to CORR: It's all about the exposure.
CORR has exclusive broadcasting rights with Speed Channel, which shows 84 hours of CORR racing per season reaching some 63 million homes in the U.S. The thing that separates CORR from other off-road racing such as Baja is that fans at the track and TV viewers can watch most or all of the race all the way through; the vehicles don't vanish in the desert like in the long-course races.
``Kumho being somewhat of an unfamiliar name to consumers early in the 2000 time period, CORR gave us a position to tie the Kumho name to a legitimate motorsport that was very TV friendly unlike desert racing, which is why we're not in desert racing,'' Mr. Leverington said.
Kumho joined CORR in the 2001 season and just signed a two-year contract to be the official tire starting this year. But if the company's involvement in CORR was aimed primarily at boosting its reputation, its lack of an established name in racing didn't hurt, either.
Mr. Leverington said BFGoodrich-an associate CORR sponsor-is considered the big dog on the off-road racing block, which means aficionados take a BFGoodrich loss seriously, he said, while another win is considered the status quo. On the other hand, a Kumho win is considered a startling achievement, Mr. Leverington suggested.
``We have everything to gain and nothing to lose, whereas Goodrich has everything to lose and not a whole lot to gain other than maintaining its reputation,'' he said.
Kumho went for the official tire sponsorship to garner attention without having to rely on wins.
``There are two ways to get attention,'' Mr. Leverington told Tire Business. ``One is to win races and be the king of the hill or buy your way in. And we're basically buying our way in. Goodrich might have three or four trucks they sponsor in a given class (and) we might only sponsor one. So it's impossible for us to win as many races as Goodrich. So to get the brand awareness, we can be a title sponsor and we're guaranteed a certain level of exposure over anybody else.... Because I'm only in it for the exposure, I'm not in it for the race.''
Brad Williams, senior sales representative for Maxxis, said winning races in CORR is the company's ultimate goal, but he agreed about the consolation of not winning. ``When you've got a truck like ours painted up all in orange and our colors, it definitely gets you some exposure.''
This is Maxxis' first year sponsoring a team that always had competed on Maxxis tires, Mr. Williams said. The Suwanee, Ga.-based company has signed a five-year deal to sponsor a support truck for the CORR series and aims to quadruple its CORR involvement in the near future with team sponsorships and even sponsoring the series, he said. Maxxis also offers prize money to anyone who wins on its Big Horn and Buckshot Mudder tires in the Pro Lite series.
``Off-road racing exposure gives your product validity,'' Mr. Williams explained. ``There are so many different brands out there. You don't see a lot of private label brands doing it. It kind of separates you from the smaller guys when you can make that kind of commitment to sponsorship.''
Another newcomer to CORR, Toyo also has entered the CORR series to develop innovative products and incorporate motorsports into its marketing strategy, according to Travis Roffler, Toyo's director of marketing. Already, Toyo is advertising in off-road enthusiast publications, plugging its race truck and the off-road durability and capability of its Open Country line of light truck tires.
The Cypress, Calif.-based tire maker has signed three-year contracts with two or three CORR teams and is sponsoring nine teams overall. Mr. Roffler said Toyo is definitely in CORR to win and have its drivers on the podium touting the Toyo brand, because ``through winning, you create brand loyalty.''
This season CORR is offering a tire championship trophy for the first time, and Toyo wants to win the tire championship eventually, though Mr. Roffler admitted that may not be feasible this year.
Pit Bull Tire is beginning to dip its toes in the CORR arena by sponsoring the Rookie of the Year program. President Michael Green said the company, a division of private brander Tire Mart Inc., sponsored the series in general last year, but hopes to sponsor some teams by next season. Mr. Green said the company plans to unveil some new tires this fall for the racers.
He hopes to enhance Pit Bull's brand recognition with the sport.
``We're trying to get people to use them, race on them, then hopefully the fans will go out and buy our tires,'' he told Tire Business. ``Also it's a great place to test your tires. If you can take the punishment there, you can take it anywhere.''
Todd Hershberger, marketing manager for Goodyear's light truck and SUV tires, said the company gains both technological experience and valuable exposure from its CORR sponsorship. The tire maker has been involved with CORR since its beginnings and its predecessor since about 1990.
``We race so that we can learn from it then build that learning into the tires for consumers,'' he said.
As an example, one CORR driver in the Super Buggy division recently used Goodyear's new Wrangler with SilentArmor technology tires and noticed a better ride, Mr. Hershberger said. ``What we were targeting for consumers, even this race driver felt the difference.''
After CORR officials recently announced that the Akron-based tire maker will continue as an associate sponsor of the race series, Steve Miller, Goodyear's marketing and promotions manager, said the firm ``has experienced great past success in all forms of off-road racing, including the CORR series, and we have been able to showcase our tires on various off-road trucks that have captured the checkered flag.'' The company features its Goodyear Wrangler MT/R product line in the competition.
The CORR racing venue provides tire makers the ultimate testing ground they relish: an extreme environment with unpredictable surfaces and professional drivers who know how to drive vehicles through muck and mud. At the same time, the very people who will go to dealerships and buy light truck tires are watching.
Michelin has raced in the CORR series since CORR's founding with its BFGoodrich brand, and BFGoodrich-shod teams have won the CORR championship every year in the Pro-2 and Pro Lite divisions. A Michelin spokesman said CORR has proved valuable in testing tread designs and technologies.
``You can say that off-road racing provides an environment like no other,'' the Michelin spokesman said. ``It's high-speed, real-world conditions that a test lab or a simulation just cannot provide you.''
Three of the four BFGoodrich tires used in the CORR series are the same street tires sold by dealers: Mud Terrain T/AKM, Radial Long-Trail T/A and All Terrain T/AKO.
Kumho's Mr. Leverington said its race tires also are essentially the same sold at dealerships.
Maxxis' Mr. Williams noted that while the company's engineers are evaluating the tire's construction and performance, CORR drivers are putting the tires through challenging applications that most consumers would never do with their own vehicles. The result is that Maxxis can see how its tires perform against competitors and then ``tweak'' the tires as necessary.
``We get really good feedback from those guys (drivers),'' Mr. Williams said. ``Those guys have been racing so long that they know what their vehicles feel like and what they're supposed to do.''
A growing series
Regarding Mr. Baldwin's buyout of the series, Mr. Roffler said he believes CORR will grow under Mr. Baldwin's investment, which he said he believes will ``pay off tenfold.''
``They've already announced the addition of the San Diego event, so I envision that in the next three to five years it's going to grow to be a mainstream sport,'' he said. ``I think if people get access and get to see a race, I think they'll see one and be hooked.... Pro-2s and Pro-4s run even higher horsepower than even NASCAR runs, and they're sliding sideways in the dirt.''
Mr. Leverington said the important factor now is the capital available to Mr. Baldwin. Indeed, in a CORR statement, former owner Mr. Reid said he vowed to step aside if someone was able to take the franchise farther.
``When you got money behind the sport, there's a lot of things you can do that you couldn't do before,'' Mr. Leverington said.
CORR's popularity continues to grow not only among fans but also dealers, the tire makers said. Some of Michelin's dealers in key markets are off-roaders, the spokesman said, and the tire maker typically invites a local dealer who does business in the cities where CORR races are held to join with it on race weekends to promote the BFGoodrich brand and their dealerships.
``In some instances, dealers will even hand out coupons for discounts on a tire or service at these events for these consumers,'' the spokesman said.
Toyo plans to bring dealers to some CORR races in the next three to five years, but more so to enjoy the events than to sell products or services, Mr. Roffler said.