PHOENIX — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Tim Kuniskis was taking a Formula racing course at the Bondurant Racing School around 18 months ago when he noticed something at the Arizona compound: a can’t-miss branding opportunity for Dodge’s powerful family of Vipers, Challengers and Chargers.
The Chandler, Ariz., facility, situated on 450 acres in the desert, is a destination for driving enthusiasts around the world with its 1.6-mile road course, 8-acre skills pad, four racetracks and hands-on instructors.
Chevrolet was the school’s official sponsor at the time, making the site a branding haven for Camaros and Corvettes clad with “Bondurant” stickers.
Kuniskis wanted in. He’s a big proponent of the kind of experiential marketing that spreads virally when people share their adventures on social media, so a high-profile partnership with a premier racing school was right up Dodge’s alley.
“I’m looking at all these Chevys, and I’m going, “Wow, all these people that are coming to this class are being trained on these cars,’” recalled Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands for FCA North America. “This is subliminal marketing at an unbelievable level. How do I become a part of this?”
Making the deal
FCA made a sponsorship offer that the Bondurant school couldn’t ignore. It included cash allowances for parts, gas and tires in addition to supplying over 100 vehicles worth nearly $10 million combined.
The new partners announced in November that the Camaros and Corvettes that sped through Bondurant for 13 years would give way in January to the SRT/Hellcat variants of the Challenger and Charger — along with the Viper SRT TA and ACR. (Chevy declined to comment.)
Kuniskis said there used to be an SRT drive experience that traveled the country, but it was open to SRT owners only. Kuniskis considers the Bondurant partnership a step up. The marketing component of the relationship has several levels.
First, there’s the conquest opportunity. Kuniskis said this partnership presents an opportunity to show drivers who might own competing models what Dodge and the Hellcat craze are all about. Dodge also offers discounts to school participants who want to buy a vehicle after their classes.
Since January, Kuniskis said, around 4,000 students have gone through the Bondurant school — and not all of them own Dodge products.
The Viper is enticing owners of competing models, said Pat Bondurant, president of the school and wife of its founder, former race car driver Bob Bondurant.
“We’re converting Porsche guys, Z06 guys. We’re putting them in Vipers, and they’re getting converted real fast. A lot of these guys are coming just to taste what that Viper is like,” Pat Bondurant told Automotive News.
Then there’s the special deal for buyers and lessees of new 2015 or 2016 SRT models that gives them a free, one-day session at Bondurant.
Having vehicles at the school is beneficial to Dodge engineers as well because they can work directly with the Bondurant team to understand what their products are capable of in extreme conditions, said Chad Seymour, SRT brand manager.
The school is becoming a backdoor way for consumers to reserve Hellcats, which are still hot commodities. Bondurant auctions off vehicles after 12 to 15 months to make way for new models, so some students call dibs on the Hellcats and Vipers they drive during the classes, Pat Bondurant said. The students, she said, are eager to provide their contact and credit card information to secure a vehicle.
There’s strong alignment between the Bondurant crowd and Dodge buyers. Kuniskis said around half of the Bondurant audience is in the 35- to 55-year-old range, while the average Dodge buyer falls right in between, at 45.
Kuniskis said Dodge will market its Bondurant connection at Barrett Jackson auctions with thrill rides in its vehicles donning “Bondurant” stickers. Dodge also has a Bondurant vehicle display at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.
The Bondurant school, meanwhile, is heavily promoting the Dodge partnership on its website and social media channels.
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More FCA vehicles are on the way. Pat Bondurant said she’s expecting new Fiat models to arrive in late June, while Alfa Romeos could appear in the fall. It’s unclear which Alfa Romeo products will be available, but Bondurant said the Fiat 500 Abarth and 124 Spider are on the slate.
Kuniskis remembers when FCA wouldn’t let people near the Viper. As recently as two years ago, the automaker would keep the car behind a rope at events and keep people at a distance. That closed mentality had to change, he said. Then the Hellcats emerged, but many couldn’t imagine actually driving them.
Now they can.
“No dealer is going to let a person test drive a Viper or Hellcat,” Kuniskis said. “If a customer comes in and they’ve heard all of the excitement about a Viper ACR or Hellcat, and a dealer says … “Go to Bondurant, take a two-day class. You can take the world’s highest-performance test drive ever if you’re on the fence.’
“That’s an opportunity that never existed before.”