Most accidents in motorsport are of the crashing into a barrier in a ball of flame and flying shrapnel variety, but in the case of Kia and its nascent motorsport program, it has found accidental success because of some gutsy risk-taking by the South Korean company's American management team.
If you look back just three years, Kia was best known for what were charitably referred to as "economy cars," and were viewed by car enthusiasts as nothing more than cheap people-carriers, but that perception has begun to change. Even as the overall quality and performance of Kia's cars have improved in recent years, the U.S. branch of the company has embarked on a serious and risky brand-building exercise, racing Kia cars in the Grand Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Street Tuner and Pirelli World Challenge racing circuits, a gamble that could have easily ended in failure.
Kia, with its partner Kinetic Motorsports, races the Forte Koup in the Grand Am Sports Car Challenge and the Optima in the Pirelli World Challenge, and in the three years since the Forte started blazing the way for Korean motorsports, the manufacturer has seen considerable success. Kia entered motorsport in 2010 with the Forte and by the 2011 season had won the Grand Am Sports Car Challenge outright, a rapid ascent to dominance by a manufacturer that had literally no experience racing.
"It just surprised the heck out of everyone," Kinetic Motorsports co-owner Russell Smith said. When Kia approached Smith about racing the Forte, he said his team was initially skeptical about the chances of the Forte Koup in a field that includes cars from Porsche, BMW, Honda and Volkswagen, among other manufacturers. "We didn't take it particularly seriously at the beginning; we thought it was a bit of a joke."
Kia's South Korean management was equally skeptical of a future in motorsport for the brand. If Kia started racing, it would be the first South Korean automaker in motorsport ever, and even within the company there was not a perception of Kia being a performance brand, despite a substantial redesign of most of its models in 2009.
"Prior to 2009, we were primarily known as a value brand," said Michael Sprague, Kia's U.S. executive vice president of marketing. The model redesign came in 2009, substantially improving the overall quality of the line-up, but the brand was still saddled with the reputation it earned in previous model years. "The research that we have is that the automotive enthusiasts ... are very influential in the buying decision of lots of other people," Sprague said.
Most new car buyers ask friends, family members and co-workers that they perceive as being knowledgeable about cars, enthusiasts, in other words. Sprague's thinking was that motorsport would provide an outlet for Kia to demonstrate to the automotive enthusiasts that are influential in people's lives that the brand was now a good, performance purchase.
"There are only so many things you can do to change people's conceptions," Smith said.
Kia's Sprague saw the potential of motorsport to help the company reinvent itself and shake its image as a budget manufacturer, but he was faced with a challenge in convincing the management, and Kinetic Motorsports, that Kia and the Forte were up to the challenge of racing. Ultimately, Sprague got tentative nod from Kia's management to go ahead and try the Forte in motorsport. Kinetic and Sprague were on trial in their first Grand Am season.
"Michael stuck his neck out a bit early on, and he made a good bet," Smith said.
"The first race in Daytona, people laughed at," Smith said. The pressure was on Smith and Kinetic as well as Sprague if they were going to demonstrate that the Forte really did represent a new, reinvented Kia. "It was a pretty heavy responsibility not to screw up and now to be on the side of the track," Smith said.
Kinetic and Kia finished the first Grand Am season in the middle of the pack and with only one car failure in 20 races, which was deemed enough of a success to race for another season. When the 2011 Grand Am season rolled around, "We just cleaned everybody's clocks," Smith said. "Suddenly everybody sort of stopped sniggering and sort of began taking us seriously." Kia and Kinetic would go on to win the series outright in 2011.
Winning the series was exactly the kind of result that Sprague wanted to see, and Kia's top brass took notice. "The U.S. is the first market that got into racing globally," Sprague said. "Other markets around the world are starting to get into racing." Beyond the fact that winning feels good, Kia has begun to see positive results from racing in brand awareness which they hope will ultimately translate to greater sales. A Kia fan base is starting to develop, something which was never there before the racing program began. Success of the racing program at building the brand has primarily been measured in soft terms by the number of positive mentions of it on social media and race-day walk-ups who say either that Kia "is doing great" or that they hadn't known Kia was in racing before.
The next step for Kia has been sending the race cars to dealerships in the days before races to build enthusiasm, and the company has received anecdotal reports from dealers that the motorsport program is bringing in new customers. "There's no real way to measure the enthusiast' impact," Sprague said, but the advice seeking tendencies of consumers mean racing fans probably have a weightier impact on sales than other people might.
The racing program has been enough of a success on and off the track that Kia is expanding its participation in motorsport, both globally and in the U.S. In 2012, Kia started racing the Optima in the Pirelli World Challenge after a Kinetic driver mentioned that he thought it would do well on the track, and Kia co-president Byeong Mo Ahn began pushing the program. Kia's Forte is currently running in fourth place out of a field of nine manufacturers in the Grand Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Street Tuner series, while the Optima is fourth out of a five teams in the Pirelli World Challenge GTS circuit.
"I think Kia as a brand is starting to learn to use motorsport as a marketing tool," Smith said. Moreover, the adolescent racing program has started to have some input into the design of future Kia vehicles, particularly for the Forte Koup, although the full impact won't be seen for several years given the standard four to six year design cycle for cars. The Forte and Optima, though, are already essentially up to racing standards, Smith said, although the Optima requires somewhat more work to make it track-ready.
"If you've got a crappy design when you first get it [a stock car], it's very difficult to build it into a good racecar," Smith said. The Kia Forte Koup has already proved itself to be a very capable racer, and the Optima has shown itself to be a solid competitor in its first year of racing.