CHICAGO -- In a Super Bowl commercial last month, Nissan revealed its new GT-R LM Nismo race car, even though Le Mans racing is hardly America's best-known track event.
In fact, when it comes to motorsports, Nissan is doing a number of things that depart from the norm. Among them: designing a front-wheel-drive racer with hybrid power and selecting its professional racers based on how they perform as home gamers.
Darren Cox is global director of motorsports for Nissan and head of sales and marketing for the Nismo performance brand. The 40-year-old Brit, who began his career in finance with Renault in London, is now tasked with raising Nissan's profile in world racing. That includes making NASCAR-centric Americans more aware of Nissan as a bona fide source of performance technology. Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell spoke with Cox last month at the auto show here.
Q: Why is Nissan putting so much effort into publicizing this new GT-R Le Mans race car?
A: We have a brand that says "Innovation that excites" all around the world, and we have to live that brand message. Otherwise, we're liars. This car is the ultimate expression of innovation that excites.
The old adage about why car companies participate in racing is, "Race on Sunday, sell on Monday." Has that marketing philosophy changed?
Yes, definitely. The reality now is "Win on Sunday -- consistently -- and over the next three years, you will build your brand and people will start to follow you and will consider buying your car at some point in the future."
That's not very catchy.
I know. We need to work on it. But nobody today thinks about measuring the sales results of this or that vehicle against the amount of money we spent on racing.
But Le Mans is pretty exotic stuff for Americans who are used to NASCAR.
Yes, no doubt. In America today, they might only remember Le Mans from the old movie with Steve McQueen. You could argue that the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500 is America's greatest race. But 24 Hours of Le Mans is still the world's greatest race. And we want to raise the profile and bring it back to American consciousness.
Does it translate to American retailing? Will we see your car on posters in a Nissan dealership in Iowa?
I hope so. We have to get out the message of why these cars look like they do and how they perform and what we've put into them. The industry isn't helping itself in the way we market our racing activity. The practice is that the car goes into the garage and we put a screen up. People don't want to just sit back and watch anymore -- they want to participate. They want to know why we've done this as a front-wheel drive instead of the usual rear drive. They want to tweet with the drivers. They want to know what the drag coefficient is.
They can get that on their PlayStation, but not in the real world. We need to change that and let fans be involved with us.
Do you engage with race fans?
Yes, people tweet, and I respond. If I disagree with you, I'll tell you why I disagree. If I like what you're saying, I'll retweet you.
Nissan is selecting young drivers based on their gaming skills. I find that hard to grasp. Some of them are only experienced driving on their sofa.
We've got 5 million people who are interested in racing through their gaming activity. And if we can find the most talented gamers out of that pool, we've got the basis for some great drivers.
A famous racer once said that the best racing driver in the world is probably driving a bus in Mexico right now -- meaning that just because you haven't had the opportunity to train as a racer yet, it doesn't mean that you can't become one.
We do put them behind the wheel and train them, of course. We build them up to the high-speed curves. It takes about a year. And they are doing well at it.
I'm a big guy. Will I fit in that little cockpit?
We've got a guy who's 6-1, and he folds into it. But 6-2 or more -- probably out of luck. Sorry. c