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FEATURE: ONE DOOR CLOSES – SIMON MCNAMARA LEAVES HOLDEN

Simon McNamara has since found a new home in Australian GT. Before that transition, in issue 1704, we chatted to Simon about his time at helm of Holden Motorsport.

Simon McNamara lead Holden Motorsport through a successful decade - Photo: LAT

Simon McNamara lead Holden Motorsport through a successful decade – Photo: LAT

After a decade of success Holden’s Motorsport Manager Simon McNamara parted ways with Holden this month. The man behind an unparalleled run of wins took the time to say what was on his mind.

By PHIL BRANAGAN

IF YOU look up ‘Enigma’ in the Motor Racing dictionary you might just see a headshot of Simon McNamara.
Since he moved into a key role in Holden’s Motorsport category a decade ago the brand’s Supercar team have won everything there is to win, and then some. Along the way he has been a polarising figure; those with whom he worked closely speak of his capabilities to see how the sport works and how Holden and its teams could be successful. Those who don’t… don’t.

But few can question the amount of success he oversaw in a turbulent and challenging period, in terms of the sport itself and the bigger picture faced by Holden and the motor industry. And few could have seen what lay ahead a decade ago.
But there have been rumours that he was looking for a new challenge for some time, and earlier this month those were confirmed. Whatever McNamara will do in the future, someone else will be steering The Lion’s on-track efforts – and its successful sponsorship in the AFL, NRL, Golf and other sports.

McNamara has had a busy time since his departure, bur before he talked about what comes next, some of his background.

THE START

“I followed motor racing as a kid, to different degrees. He brought the first hydroplane out here from America, and raced Miss Bud, and I was a part of all that. He went to American to study dentistry as a kid, and used the money to go racing.
“When I was doing university activities, with marketing and advertising, I did some things for Nissan, with the GT-R, as a project. I was heavily following them in the Godzilla days.

“I did some stuff at a Ford dealership. I wanted to get into the auto industry, I spoke to a number of automotive marketing people at the time, and they said the best thing to do was to go and sell cars for a period. I can’t say I enjoyed it but it gave me a massive appreciation of the retail side of the business. I think a lot of people think it is like buying jeans, you walk in and say, ‘I want that size’. It isn’t. Having that knowledge at the start was really good.”

HOLDEN MOTORSPORT

“I started there [at Holden] wanting to do that job. I did sales promotion and brand-related jobs, and different things along the way. The whole time I was doing bits with the motorsport department, with John Lindell or John Stevenson, to get an understanding of trying to move into that role. It was a longshot early on, to be honest. It was very engineering-based, and I am not an engineer – but I do my best to understand it.

“If you ever want to go to a university, the best one you can possibly go to is the University of John Stevenson. ‘Stevo’ is a very wise man. His understanding of sales and marketing was very wide. He did all of that stuff; he was a champion of helping all the teams; in those days, Holden was paying a lot of teams. He would help teams acquire a sponsor, or some engineering support. For the [Australian] Safari, he was heavily a part of the engineering support for the cars.

“Stevo was motorsport manager, then Ray Borrett got brought in to be Performance, Racing and Products Director. He was overseeing racing, and trying to do a parts package. At that point, Ray thought that he needed help, I think, so Craig Fletcher came along. In that period, Stevo was still there, I was made Motorsport Marketing manager first, then Stevo left and I was made Motorsport Manager when he went off into Stevo-land.”

NOT JUST MOTORSPORT

“Under my… I don’t want to say ‘reign’, I was very keen on trying to help everybody. If we were not actually giving them a cheque, from a sponsorship point of view, I wanted to assist them how we could with parts, or to acquire a driver for them, or commercialise a part of their business for them. We were very active in how we could help every team that we could possibly help. If that meant finding a sponsor, we would work to find them a sponsor. Even down to the last little bit of doing their liveries for them; we could do that. And that isn’t free, by the way.

“Five years ago, maybe a fraction more, we took on all of the rest of the sponsorship within Holden. At the time we had Netball, the Lions Club and a couple of smaller things. The Scramble has always been there, but there was a wish to get us into mainstream sports. We looked at the NRL, AFL, we kept the Scramble, the amateur gold tournament played like a professional tournament, There are 45,000 players a year in that, and Holden sold, on average, 500 cars a year out of that program.

“Collingwood came along. They are now based at the Holden Centre. On average, 250-300 cars sold out that every year. Pound for pound, that is the best sponsorship I have ever seen, by a mile.

“The commercial department at Collingwood is so far ahead of any other sporting organisation, including the AFL, the NRL and any racing team you have ever thought about – including Roland’s – any cricket, any sport that came to me. As sponsorship manager, any sport you can think of came to me. The commercial department at Collinwood, run by Ash Klein and Garry Pert, as the CEO, and their team, are the best commercial operation I have ever seen.

“It’s not just the players on the ground. The philanthropic stuff is second to none, and Holden is a part of that. They were the ones that championed the Women’s League. They were the ones that were pushing the Women’s Netball. We tried our best to make Netball work, they turned it around. As a brand, Collingwood is a massively significant thing and it sits well with the Holden brand – and it sells cars. At the end of the day that is what a car company does.”

AND EVEN MORE…

“There is the political activity between the teams and the category, which is ongoing daily, especially since we are going into Gen 2. When we had a lot more teams that we partnered with, I would advocate that we had team owner meetings. The old days of going to the Supercar Board meetings to elect members for the Board, we would have a meeting about who we would put forward. So we did not have 15 teams going there, it was a unified front.

“It was about being a family. We would get the drivers together so they felt like a family. So, if we needed a driver to help out another driver towards the end of the year – or a couple of drivers to make it hard for somebody to pass them – the conversation wasn’t all that difficult.”

THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS

“Fortunately the GFC hit at the time when Holden had one of the best people I ever met running Holden, and that’s Mark Reuss. I would always have a deck [Ed: a presentation, often in Powerpoint] ready for the next MD. They would be changed over every period of time. You would go in and have to present to the new MD about what it all meant. Some of them didn’t quite understand what it meant.

“With Mark Reuss, I didn’t even have to open the deck. I walked in with Alan Barty and John Elsworth and he would say, ‘You guys don’t need to be here, Simon and I are just going to have a chat’. We would talk – about the Nurburgring, he would show me his helmet and his racesuit, and we would talk about racing and GM. He was fantastic.

“By the time the GFC hit, we were always going to be okay because Mark understood racing, and understood what it meant for the brand. Chevrolet and Holden are very similar, in terms of brand DNA. That helped us from that point of view and we could get a few deals out into the distant future, the ones we needed to do.

“It became harder after that, obviously. The large car market declined, the merchandise was nowhere near where it needed to be, and that was a massive washing of its own back, in terms of the motor racing budget. The merchandise was a big cover for that. People within Holden were of the opinion that it was something that needed to change, it was something to get away from. It was a challenge.

“Everything was done here, up until the last two negotiations for team sponsorship. Everything was done at an MD level.”

THE OFF-TRACK SUCCESS

“Holden has a link still, with people like Gerald [McDornan] and Veracity Media, which generates tens of millions of dollars worth of media coverage for the brand, over the year. The significance of what Gerald did, and continues to do, was unprecedented, certainly at that level. The money, so far as a business case is concerned, certainly means something. You are talking to an audience that is heavily engaged with the Holden brand.

“For example, we would put something on the Holden Motorsport Facebook page and it would get thousands likes and reach one to two million people within half an hour. If something went on the Holden Facebook page, you might get a couple of thousand over a 24 to 48 hour period. The engagement was significantly higher with the Holden Motorsport fan and Gerald, who also has dealership experience and understands the auto industry, was very good at targeting those guys, and talking to them. And he continues to be.

“That was an audience that we there. They were engaged and they were ‘Holden-ised’ but you can’t just forget about them, you need to talk to them.

“There is a lot of synergies about talking to that group and making sure that they still know that Holden was around and Holden was still racing. We tried to push for the broader thing, but the brand needed to change and there was significant pushback in certain areas about how far you went with all of that.

“There was a lot done in the last year, in terms of repositioning the brand. There was a brand change, in terms of the actual font, a new tag line and in the look and feel of the ads. They were going down a different path, in the style of the branding. What that ultimately means, I couldn’t tell you.”

TRIPLE EIGHT

“Roland and I were talking ‘the sport’ two years before all that. We were discussing how we, as a collective, how we could assist each other to future-proof the sport. We both saw a decline in certain areas, whether it was the large car market, or whether it was the audience, the TV scenario or the rules.

“When we knew that the Ford guys decided that they did not need to continue with Triple Eight I immediately started talking to Roland – it might have even been in Darwin that year. I think it was the Friday I heard the story and that day, we had the chat.
“It took us a while to get a deal together. It was not just a matter of going to Roland and saying, ‘Do you want to be a Holden team? Here is some money’. I know everyone thinks that Roland is about just taking the cheque, he is about making sure that something is the best for Triple Eight as a business and as a team. At that time, they had developed the Falcon for Ford – it wasn’t the other blokes, I can assure you – and there was an engineering challenge for him and his team to convert to a VE Commodore.

“And we had challenges with the VE Commodore, given that the homologation wasn’t exactly perfect when we got to the car. It was a very successful car, but if you look at the time frame, when Triple Eight came along it helped with its success. We had aerodynamic challenges with that car, and those guys sorted their vehicle out in about 12 minutes. They had one test and realised that the front was not all that good. They changed it and they stuck it on pole in their first race ever.
“It was about making sure that it was right for his business. It wasn’t about the money because the money wasn’t massive. It was about making sure it was right for him. He always had some GM DNA in his system anyway from a bygone era from the old Triple Eight.

HOW HRT WAS AFFECTED

“Ultimately it was. But at the time the whole point of it was that, from my point of view, I am a really bad loser. Four cars that can win, week-in and week-out, is to the sport’s detriment. But I was with that brand and I wanted to do the best that I could for that brand. That will be the same wherever I end up, whatever I am doing .

“I want cars 1-2-3. If there was a drama, the fourth car can stand up and take some of the success. I wanted to win as much as we could possible win. The challenge was set to HRT, by bringing the other guys on board. Whether they rose to the challenge or not, I guess that the stats will tell you the answer to that. That was the business case behind it and I think it worked on a couple of occasions. It didn’t work as regularly as I wanted it to, but it did on a couple of occasions.

THE HRT DECISION

“It was an incredibly difficult decision. It was a couple of years before Tom [Walkinshaw] succumbed to his illness, we worked very hard from then and until the last day to help them improve, in every area of their business. I had great relationships with Steve Hallam, and with Tom and Craig Wilson, we worked very hard to make sure that they were doing what we needed them to do as the Holden Racing Team brand.

“In the end, I made the call to Ryan [Walkinshaw] myself, because I felt that was something that I needed to do. It wasn’t just about having a line item in a budget, which in some areas of the business it can become. There were people involved, and it was incredibly difficult.”

Simon McNamara during his time in charge of Holden Motorsport

Simon McNamara during his time in charge of Holden Motorsport

WHY LEAVE?

“You always think about doing something different. It was probably sitting in my head for about 10 years. There were things that came to the fore a couple of times. There were times I got close with some roles, a couple of them external to motor racing.

“My passion was for the brand. I felt that I had an obligation to the teams and the people that I worked with, in a motorsport sense. From the racing point of view, I felt that I had an obligation to help Nick Percat get as far as he could. I wanted LDM to become what Lucas [Dumbrell] wanted it to become. To help HRT be what it could be, week-in, week-out. To help James Courtney, Garth Tander.

“I worked very hard to get James into a Commodore. It was a year of constant arguments and battles, and talks with Allan Gow. He is an excellent operator, and the best part about that is that he is not here and he is not emotionally linked to it. James and I are friends, and I wanted him in a Commodore, because of his visibility. Greg Murphy in the early days, from Kmart to PWR, Tasman Motorsport, we were big instigators in making sure that was okay.

“Jason Richards, I worked closely with him, for all of the time. That gets very emotional; we were close friends, it was difficult to see him go through what we went through. Once we got him into the Joneses, he was a perfect fit.
“We turned the Joneses from Fords to Holdens. We still have a great relationship with them. That weighs heavily on me; I didn’t want to go and do something else and leave those guys in the lurch.

“You get to the pit wall at the Clipsal 500 at the first race of the year. You look at the new liveries we have done, or the new deals, or the driver placements. You get the tingle. You think, ‘It’s all come to fruition, I love this’. That is a massive high.
“It was very hard. The business is going through a transition. I felt like I was in the ‘Seinfeld Moment’; seven Manufacturer Championships in a row. Multiple Driver Championships. Multiple Bathurst wins. Helped teams to become what they wanted to be. Nick Percat is in a good car, where he wanted to be. Garth moving on. Changes at HRT. Triple Eight was set, they were ‘Holden-ised’. The Collingwood stuff. It was all where it needed to be. I felt like it was, ‘OK, we have achieved everything that we need to achieve and maybe it is time to think about myself and my family and look at what is next for us.”

WHAT NEXT?

“A break. I got some unbelievable support from North America, at the highest level. That was difficult for me to work through but I needed what was best for my family. We had discussions about me going to America.

“Mark Reuss, Jim Campbell [Ed: Performance Parts and Racing Director, North America] and Mike Simcoe, those three guys were unbelievably supportive of me. That has been overwhelming; I do get emotional about that. Those guys and what they have done over a long journey is amazing. Mark Reuss, to be where he is in the ‘GM World’ and to talk to me the way he has done, to a guy from Down Under, means a lot. I can be quite open and honest about that.

“The same with Jim Campbell. He controls all the racing, effectively. Mike Simcoe is effectively number two or three in the business. We got on really well, because he understands racing. They made me an offer to go to America. Five years ago I would have been on the plane already. It’s a different world and a different time, and I have priorities with my family. I need to do what’s right for the family. It was mentally draining.

“I am now evaluating the opportunities that I have. I am not going to rush. They are all really exciting. It is a matter of whether I can make them mesh together.”

WILL HE GO TO ADELAIDE?

“I will. I went to the Bathurst 12 Hour to have a look and a few chats. It was an interesting experience in terms of comparing it to the last time I went to a 12 Hour. We ran when it was for Production Cars. We had an all-woman Astra, Stevo had the Castrol Cougars…

“There were a lot of campers, the fence line was busy. It’s big.
“I will be interested to see how Clipsal is, from a ‘non-branded’ point of view. My boys have said to me, ‘Who do we go for now?’ I said, ‘Go for whoever you like!’ If they want to go for Chaz, that’s fine, he is that sort of guy. He did a fantastic job in the 12 Hour. He was outstanding, he is a talent.

“I am quite enjoying being open to it. Rick and Todd, we helped those guys over the years so it would be good to see them go a bit better. Michael Caruso, we helped him. I would love to see him go well, and how Simona goes. There will always being a bit of seeing the team we set up go well. I want Garth to go well and James to go well. And Brighty; we go back a long way.

“It’s a new era. And I do not have to go there with any internal anxiety.”