Cashing In on Auto Racing : Bruce Barnes Skips the Pit Stops While Marketing Indy Drivers and Teams to Nation’s Biggest Corporations

Times Staff Writer

At first glance, the link between chili peppers and auto racing seems a bit obscure, but to Bruce Barnes it was a natural.

After all, racing is a sport that appeals to the adventurous, and chilies are not for the faint of heart.

So Barnes, through his fledgling Barnes Management Co. in Newport Beach, sold the folks at Heublein Inc. on signing the Al and Bobby Unser families to promote Heublein’s Ortega brand canned chilies.


The whole Unser clan made a 3-month, eight-state blitz of personal appearances at state fairs, chili cook-offs and other events to promote Ortega.

Pre-Unser, about 350,000 cases of Ortega chilies were sold in the United States each year. In the 90 days of the blitz, 475,000 cases were sold.

The Unsers and Ortega parted company in 1980 when Heublein sold the brand to RJR Nabisco.

Premier Marketing Company

But Ortega products have continued to maintain a prominent place in the market; the Unsers have continued their winning ways on and off the track, and Barnes Management has grown from a one-man firm with two clients in 1975 to one of the premier marketing organizations in the auto racing world.

When the Indy race cars line up on the starting grid at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach at noon today, Barnes Management will count as clients six of the drivers and four of the teams in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) event.

And Bruce Barnes will have had a lot to do with the multitude of product names that adorn his client teams’ pit walls and race cars and make the drivers’ fire-retardant racing suits look like patchwork quilts.

It was in 1974 that Barnes saw the untapped marketing potential of auto racing and left his job as vice president at his brother’s sports management firm, Sports Headliners Inc.


Barnes sells the services of auto racing teams and drivers to corporate sponsors, but what he really is selling is access to a huge national and international audience. Auto racing is the second largest spectator sport in the United States and the largest in the world.

Annual Retainer, Percentage Fee

He created Barnes Management to represent drivers--and later, entire teams--by finding them corporate endorsements and product marketing opportunities. He charges an annual retainer and a percentage of the earnings from contracts his company negotiates. As part of his services, he also develops marketing programs built around his clients for businesses.

In 15 years, Barnes has built his company into one of the best marketing operations in the racing industry, said John Crofts Gorsline.

Gorsline himself is no slouch at the game of making tough sells. His Gorsline Co. in Rochester, N.Y., is an insurance broker and underwriter specializing in liability, medical and disability insurance for high-risk professionals and athletes. Gorsline counts about 200 professional race car drivers as clients.

“Barnes has an impeccable reputation in the sport and is a very good businessman, a real pro,” Gorsline said. “He really cares about his clients and the sponsors and tries to put together deals that do good” for both sides.

From a small suite of offices tucked into a commercial complex near the junction of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways in Irvine, Bruce and Virginia Barnes and their co-workers--six in Orange County, one in Indiana and one in Ohio--this year will negotiate about $10 million worth of sponsorship and marketing contracts.


To do it, they will travel all over the country, spend most weekends at race tracks and make countless telephone calls, written pitches and personal visits to booking agents, corporate marketing departments and advertising agencies.

The company now negotiates promotional contracts and organizes travel schedules and personal appearances for a stable of drivers who generally pepper the front rows of the starting grid at the Indianapolis 500 each year: Kevin Cogan, Rick Mears, Scott Pruett, Bobby Rahal, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser and Al Unser Jr.

And three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser, who no longer drives competitively but is involved with his son’s racing team, is Barnes’ biggest and busiest client.

In the off-road racing program, clients include 20-time world champion Roger Mears as well as the Mears team and the Chrysler-Jeep team.

He has been successful, he said, because he recognizes that “the secret of making it work is to take the time to look at the sponsor through the sponsor’s eyes,” Barnes said. “To see their goals and then put together a program that will meet them. We sell more than just an endorsement or a sign on the side of a race car.”

In the case of the individual drivers, that means that Barnes sells their willingness to speak at sales meetings and mix with sponsors’ employees and customers at seminars, annual meetings and race-related parties and mixers.


This year, for example, Barnes has signed client Rick Mears--who won his third Indy 500 victory in 1988--to a promotional contract for Alpine Electronics of America.

For his fee--which Barnes won’t disclose--Mears will do several television commercials and a print media ad campaign for Alpine and will make appearances and sign autographs at the Alpine car audio products display at four of the year’s 16 Indy car races, said Virginia Barnes.

Race drivers, Barnes said, are ideal clients because they “are naturally curious people who like to get involved in other areas.” And they are easy to deal with, he said, because “they aren’t spoiled” by massive press coverage and huge signing bonuses, as are star athletes in some other sports.

A key to Barnes Management’s successes is Barnes’ belief that the most fertile possibilities often lie a long way from the obvious.

He can most often be found chasing companies that have no idea they need a race driver or a $4-million racing team to help popularize their products or fire up their sales forces.

For example, in 1981 Barnes put a brewery and a racing team together for the first time--overcoming the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co.’s fears that the juxtaposition of drinking and driving would provoke a negative reaction.


That contract proved so successful that several other breweries have begun sponsoring Indy cars. And when Stroh Breweries bought Schlitz several years ago, it replaced that brand with its own Stroh’s and Schaefer brands as Indy car sponsors--under contracts negotiated by Barnes.

The Schlitz pact was a difficult sale, “probably the hardest time I’ve ever had,” Barnes said. It took a total of 81 meetings over 7 months to persuade the brewer to give it a try.

Another tough sell occurred in 1980 when he signed Hilton Hotels to a contract as primary sponsor for the entire Championship Auto Racing Teams Indy car racing series.

It took 5 years of on-and-off negotiations to make Hilton see the compatibility of auto races and hotels.

But Barnes finally persuaded the chain to spend several million dollars by hammering away at four themes:

Auto racing draws about 70 million paying spectators in this country each year, meaning there’s a big audience out there.


Hotels traditionally are emptiest on weekends.

The Indy car races are held on weekends in or near cities where Hilton has hotels.

Sponsoring the series will get Hilton’s name spread all over the race tracks and home viewers’ television screens (all 16 races are televised).

Combining all that with a properly targeted advertising campaign, he told Hilton officials, would get race officials and drivers and crews and all their entourages and fans, to check into Hilton hotels.

Additional Business Created

The sales pitch worked and Hilton signed a multi-year contract.

Patrick Barry, director of marketing communications for Hilton Hotels Corp. in Beverly Hills, said the sponsorship deal, which ran for 4 years, was a good one that created additional business for the chain.

But Hilton ultimately pulled out, he said, because it did not accomplish all they had expected. “We hoped being the official hotel would help us become the hotel of preference for the major Detroit auto companies that are active in CART racing,” he said.

Neither Hilton nor Barnes Management would disclose what the chain paid for its series sponsorship.

Typically, Barnes said, a client who wants to tie into the CART Indy car racing season will spend from $150,000 for prominent display of the corporate logo on a race car and on the driver’s racing suit to about $4 million for prime sponsorship of an entire team.


“For that, you can make a whole Indy team look like you own it,” which is what Marlboro does with Barnes client Pat Patrick and his Patrick Racing organization.

Off-Road Circuit Less Costly

The off-road racing circuit is a little less expensive, with sponsors spending from $20,000 to $300,000.

These days, having carved out a solid position in motor sports, Barnes Management is moving into other sports.

In 1987, with their daughter playing on the UCLA women’s volleyball team, the Barneses added a new dimension to their company by signing a contract to market the university’s women’s sports program.

At the college level, Barnes negotiates deals that allow a sponsor to link its name with the sports program but not with an individual athlete or team.

This year, Barnes Management represents the women’s programs at seven of the PAC 10 universities, raising funds for them by finding corporate sponsors willing to trade cash for the opportunity to advertise and test their products on the campuses.


And sponsors of women’s collegiate sports programs generally pay about $25,000 per year per campus, said Virginia Barnes, who runs that program for the company.

Barnes Management, she said, now represents the programs at USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Washington State University, Arizona State University, University of Arizona and Oregon State University.

While racing still accounts for the bulk of Barnes Management’s business, the women’s programs “open up a lot of new possibilities for us,” Barnes said.

Those possibilities deal with the potential for bringing more companies into sponsorship deals.

But Bruce Barnes is cautious about growth. Too much growth, he said, would only water down the service that the Barnes team now is able to provide its clients.

Besides, the Barnes family looks forward to its occasional vacation escapes to Baja California, “where we take the phone off the hook and just crash for a week,” he said.