This is a transcription of a short interview between Mike Coraluzzi of MotorSportsCareerAdvisor.com and Professional NASCAR Driver and Marketing Expert Mike Senica.
Brief Bio: Mike Senica, first sat behind the wheel of a racecar in 1991 and has since been involved with the professional auto racing circuit for 20 years. His direct involvement started when Mike was a senior at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida and obtained his SCCA regional license where he competed in local races throughout central Florida.
In 1994, Mike became involved with Indycar racing by assisting CART/Indycar Driver, Dennis Vitolo of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Mike contacted journeyman driver Vitolo after the 1994 Indianapolis 500 and in turn, Vitolo took Mike under his wing and educated him about the logistics of sports marketing and promotions. In 1995, Mike proceeded to start his own sports marketing company, Motorsport Concepts and has helped drivers with their marketing programs for their respective sponsors ever since.
Motorsport Concepts has assisted many companies with their sports marketing programs, including Bell Plantation, Damn Good Jerky, Optimum Nutrition, XS Energy Drinks, CAM2 Motor Oil and Madi’s Organic Water by providing consulting services and by establishing new B2B relationships for them. Mike races for both the NASCAR and ARCA Racing Series.
Mike C: Mike, to start out with my first question – how did you start out on your motorsports journey? If you could explain that to us a little bit, please.
Mike Senica: Sure. I was a student down at Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University in Daytona Beach, this was 1992, 1993 and basically, one day I was having lunch and I read an article in USA Today about an Indy car driver who realized his dream by racing in the Indianapolis 500. It was Memorial Weekend, this was actually 1994, is what it was.
So basically, to make a long story short, I contacted this guy at the Indy 500, his name is Dennis Vitolo and Dennis kind of invited me to come down to Ft. Lauderdale where he lives, I live in Daytona Beach at the time, and we kind of like talked about the business of racing and how he got his start. And I joined locally, SCCA, Sports Car Club of America, started to doing some share room stock division stuff as per Dennis’ direction, but then he asked me if I wanted to help him obtain corporate sponsors for his Indy car ride and then in turn, he would turn around and fund my Barber Saab ride.
Mike Senica: Back then, Skip Barber had a series called the Barber Saab series. And so basically, that’s what I did. I went out and Dennis and I worked together and we’ve been friends ever since, that’s what, about over 20 years.
Mike C: So real quick, how do you spell his last name? I didn’t catch that.
Mike Senica: Sure. It’s Vitolo, V-I-T-O-L-O.
Mike C: Okay, cool. So that was a ways back and that started you actually driving? I mean, you sort of just went right into it?
Mike Senica: What I did was I joined the SCCA, Sports Car Club of America, the showroom stock division in Central Florida, Orlando. SCCA is kind of a club racing. You go in there and you race against each other’s times and what have you. Well, at the time I had funded my own business. I had a detailing business out of Daytona Beach when I was in college and I was able to afford lodging and a little bit of sponsorship for these teams that require… back then, they wanted a couple Hundred Dollars; I mean, back that was a lot of money. But I was able to fulfill that by sponsoring myself and basically hop into some of these Camaros or these Trans Ams and Corvettes winning some of the road courses, then what happens is I got serious about it and I went to a couple of racing schools.
I went to Skip Barber, I went to the Poconos Speedway Racing School. I did a bunch of them; I think I did three or four racing schools. I kind of got the feel for it and then basically, I started my own business. I started a company called Motorsport Concepts which is a sports marketing company which helps me search for sponsorship in corporate America and educate companies that are looking to go in that direction.
Mike C: That’s great. I can’t say it’s unusual, but you got right into it and you started a company and you’ve been doing it since, right, the sponsorship work?
Mike Senica: Yeah. We’re in good standing with all the sports sanctioning bodies. We’ve been doing it for a long time. The biggest thing I tell young prospective drivers and one thing I was told when I was younger is you have to under promise and over deliver to any potential sponsor; that’s a big thing and it carries a lot of weight.
Again, like I was telling you, some guys don’t have that business savvy, but it doesn’t mean you can’t go racing. Racing wasn’t made for a guy like me, I didn’t come from a family of millionaires, but I knew it wasn’t impossible. I knew that was where I wanted to be, involved with motorsports down the road and it took me a little bit longer to get there, but I eventually got there. But I kind of got the knack of how to obtain sponsorship, which is very important. I was always tell people getting a sponsorship is easier than keeping a sponsorship, remember that.
Mike C: Okay. And that’s your niche and what you said there is really important. Under promise and over deliver, I mean, that’s good for anybody breaking into the industry or I guess really all the time.
Mike Senica: Correct. Correct. It’s kind of like the unwritten law. You want to keep the sponsors happy. Obviously, you want to keep their phone ringing and they’ll want to work with you. Devise new marketing ideas that’s going to be able to incorporate that into the racing program.
Mike C: That’s great. I’m trying to think of how to expand on that. And now you’re driving up in NASCAR and you’re doing a couple things, right?
Mike Senica: Well, basically, I did some open-wheel stuff. I did some Formula Ford and some Barber Dodge.
For a while there, I was a professional wrestler, I did that for a while and I thought it was a lot of fun. I kind of left racing for a couple years and didn’t really concentrate too much on it. I mean, it was always in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to get back into it eventually, but I got my first start in the ARCA racing series in 2010 for Peterson Motorsports. I just drove up to Pocono and met Wayne, I talked to Wayne and I was already approved by ARCA to run some of the races. The first race I did with Wayne was Mansfield Motor Speedway, which is out in Ohio, and that was back on July 18, 2010, so that was a couple years ago, about six years ago. And so I was there and got on with Wayne and did a couple of things for him in 2010.
I got on with Wayne Hixson, another team, which is a little bit more money now because now we’re looking to do full races now. So I got on with Wayne Hixson, Hixson Motorsports and from there I went to Carter Motorsports, then I drove for Andy Hillenburg, so kind of made my way around ARCA a little bit. And this year I started with the NASCAR K & N series. In addition to that, I did the ARCA truck series, which I thought was really cool for Steve Perkins Motorsports, for SPEAR Motorsports.
But yeah, I’ve been quite a few places. People call me the journeyman racer because I’ve been in a couple of series; it’s kind of neat.
Mike C: It sounds fun, actually. So these interviews are more towards younger students and people breaking into the industry; you’ve been in the industry for a while, I’m sure networking has helped a great deal being in the different aspects of it. For a student or someone just wanting a motorsports job, we work with a lot of colleges and programs, how do you break in? I can’t say break in, but we always talk about entry points into teams or into the industry, work for businesses that on the perimeter of the industry and work your way in, but what are your thoughts, from what you’ve seen, the younger folks getting into racing or supporting teams and things?
Mike Senica: I would say the younger people have to keep in mind that you’ve got to go out there and make a name for yourself. If you sit back, it’s not going to come to you, you have to go out and be very aggressive with this. When I mean aggressive, I don’t mean running after people, but keeping in the loop with people. When I go to a track, I talked to all these car owners. I mean, I wasn’t driving for them, but they knew who I was or if I showed up a racetrack, they would go, “Oh, yeah, I remember you.” Keep your face out there. Be visible at the tracks, even if you’re not racing.
First and foremost, we’re all fans of the sport so you want to go there and encourage other drivers. You’re going to get to know other drivers and you want to go out there and support them because it’s very important. Get your face out there, be aggressive about that. Carry some business cards around with you; it doesn’t cost much. I did that and that’s kind of what got me the ride with a couple of teams because I just gave them my business card.
Mike C: And don’t be afraid to ask questions like, “Hey, do you need help before this or that?” Would you say that too?
Mike Senica: Yeah. That’s funny you say that because when you speak to someone it’s like, “Hey, my name is Mike Senica. How you doing? I’d like to drive for you.” Its like, “No problem. You’re hired. Hey, grab an end of that car and start pushing it.” I’m like “All right.” So I just got right there. I got my hands dirty. I didn’t plan on that, I just thought I’m going up there and visiting and Wayne put me to work. I was actually pushing Barry Fitzgerald’s car around in Pocono. It was kind of neat because I met Barry and Barry and I, to this day, are still good friends. And that’s the thing; you never know who you’re going to meet.
Rob Jones, I met Rob Jones that way. Rob Jones and I are both pilots. Rob’s a UPS pilot and we met at Pocono back in 2010. So you never know who you’re going to meet and these relationships are only going to help you because then you start talking to other racers and you start getting ideas and start cultivating these ideas to help each other.
Again, I’m kind of like a sounding board. Our company is a sounding board. We get quite a few drivers that contact us. Unfortunately, we do charge a fee for our services, but that’s something to look. If you want to go racing, let’s do this. And I understand sometimes finances can be low, I understand that. Unfortunately, the budget’s there aren’t what they used to be.
Many teams were calling me asking me to help them get sponsorships, I just kind of laugh about that because they’re like, “Oh, we’ll pay you on the back end.” I’m like, “No, sorry. Unfortunately, this is a front end type of deal.” So you got your name out and you’ve got to mix it up and that’s how I’m known by a lot of people in the industry. We’re very good at what we do, but again, we’ve been very aggressive about it. I’ve been very aggressive about it since I was young. Since day one, I just knew you have to go out there and make a name and impact.
Mike C: So I hear from you and from so many others, everybody, about passion and getting out there, showing your face, taking action, getting involved and really take action; don’t just take a little, take massive action. I understand that. I remember Jarett Andretti telling me in an interview, a young man, very knowledgeable for his age and he really amazed me, but he was like, “There’s no free ride. Even with the Andretti name, you got out there and get money and get things done. You’re in sales.” So yeah, if there’s an overriding theme, it’s to get out there and take action and get things done. That’s great.
So, that leads into my next question, what do you think the personal characteristics that have helped you through this from the ‘90s onwards? I hear persistence in there, but what do you think? Personal, I call them success characteristics; what do you think?
Mike Senica: Well, I’ll tell you, for me it was two words, perseverance and sacrifice found me a spot on the grid. I’ve always used that because I didn’t give up. I didn’t give up my dream, I didn’t give up my passion. And that’s the thing too, I see it all the time, I see young people out there and there a few young guys out there that I know, I mean, I can name three or four off the top of my head right now that have the passion, they want to be there and they work very hard.
That’s the thing, Dennis kept me very grounded the whole ordeal, through the process of knowing him, having sponsorship. He told me, we went to a meeting one time and he said, “Did you expect to walk away with a big check?” And I said, “Yeah, I did.” And he said, “Well, it doesn’t work that way, Mike.” You’ve got to show them and basically, show them the extended value of what we can do for them.
But I think once you can establish relationship with a company, like again, I’ll obviously use my own experiences, the relationship that I have with Bell Plantation and Buck Fishman and CAM2, I mean, these are long relationships because I do a lot of work for these companies. I make it a point to let them know, I‘ve got an idea, let’s talk about it. But that’s why there’s longevity in our relationship because I’m not afraid to contact them with an idea and keep them in front and keep it fresh; keep their product fresh in the minds of people. And again, it’s all about buying the merchandise, so when the shelf space is full of their merchandise, if I can help them do that, I do and that’s the big thing.
Once a driver establishes a relationship with a sponsor, now you’re a direct sales person of that company and you are not a brand representative of that company, so you have to now work even harder than you ever have before. I’ve seen guys with really nice deals, Mike, I mean, really nice deals, but they don’t work. They figure well, its owed to them. They’re going to sit back on their laurels and say, “Oh, I finished in 10th place today.” Well the company says, “That’s great, but have you helped us sell any product?” That’s the key right there. The key relationship here is that you’ve got to help them sell the product, that’ very important.
Mike C: So that’s interesting, the sales thing. Tying into that, and I think you already spoke about this, I’m going in order of my questions, what are some of the biggest challenges you have encountered? I wouldn’t say setbacks, but maybe how you have overcome them.
Mike Senica: Well, I’ll tell you, that’s the thing, talking to some of these retailers, they’ll say, “Send me some product.” Okay, we send the product and then all of a sudden, “Well, we’re not interested,” so you can’t let it discourage you. When I was younger, I used to go search all the time, but you know what? There’s a company out there and once you make the match and you get the sale, it’s a great feeling, it really is. Now it’s like you’ve actually helped your sponsor by getting out there and getting more visibility, which is a driver’s job. A driver’s job is to help make more visibility and an impact for his sponsor to find more shelf space to educate the public on the product and that’s why I use a lot of social media, it’s very important.
You have to go out there and pretty much pitch the product to the people. I would say the best part of my job is when I put the product in their hands. When you go to Walmart or your local retailer and pick up something or go online to BuckFishman.com and shop online, I mean, these are things that are just going to help both the sponsor and myself and you’re going to get people that are going to like the product and they’re going to keep going back. They’re going to be very, very brand loyal customers for life.
Mike C: Sales and marketing, sales takes work as to when you’re in it, like you are, pretty deep and for a long time or newer folks trying to work into breaking in the industry. It takes persistence and passion and don’t give up. I work with a lot of recruiters and it may take a lot of interviews or a lot of CV or resumé submittals to land a position, but it all comes back to how back you want it and being persistent; you can apply all these strategies to that, to even newer folks.
So are there any areas in motorsports that you suggest newer folks pay attention to in your niches? I know we talk about materials, cars and things and I’ve had interviews with other folks, but do you see any areas that maybe someone in marketing and sales in motorsports, what should they look at?
Mike Senica: I would say to look at what types of sponsors are on some of these cars and get a good grasp of that. Again, this is going to put you in the right avenue to find sponsorship. What I do is when I go to a track, Mike, I look at the other competitors’ cars.
Mike C: Right.
Mike Senica: I want to see who’s out there, who my competitors are and if there is a direct competitor, that’s what I have on my car. By contrast, I want to see what their sales are and their program. Are they utilizing a certain marketing program that we could be doing better? That’s what I do, I go and I look at other cars and I see what’s on the fenders; that, to me, are such a vital part of this because it makes you more aware of your surroundings.
Now, when you’re on the track and driving fast, you don’t pay attention to that, but I do a lot of times is I kind of do the grid walk. I kind of walk up very early during the day and what I’ll do is I’ll just go and just see who is on the cars and who is being represented at some of these races because that tells me right there that there’s a buying allegiance out there.
There are sponsors out there that want to be part of motorsports and they’re there for a reason, they’re on a car for a reason, they sound interest, but that’s what I do, that’s a key thing. I think a lot of drivers are worried about finding their own sponsorship. Go out, even a couple of them, go out and see what’s on some of these cars and then kind of cultivate your own plan of attack. I’m not saying go out and call these already taken sponsors, but go out there and find the variable or find a parallel to what is on these vehicles.
Mike C: So I would call that competitive research.
Mike Senica: Correct. Yeah.
Mike C: You need to always stay on top of what’s happening, you can’t, just like you mentioned before earlier, sit back on your laurels or wait because then you’re behind if you’re doing that.
Mike Senica: So many guys do that, yeah. I see it all the time. They say, “Well, I got this much.” Well, why don’t you take the whole thing?
Mike C: Yeah.
Mike Senica: You’re making it work for yourself. Absolutely, Mike, that’s exactly what it is, competitive research.
Mike C: It’s not going to stay fresh forever. What other tips? I went through my questions, but what else have you learned that would help people?
Mike Senica: What I would say also, just kind of be aware what’s out there. I used to do this, and this is kind of corny, but bear with me, I used to go into a supermarket and study what’s on the shelves. I mean, you know what, are there any new product introductions on the market that people need help? Trust me, every company wants to see their name on a race car. They’re not going to tell you, “Oh, yeah, we’ll do that,” but trust me, every company out there wants to see their name on a race car because it’s in lights, it’s kind of a big marquee, it’s a driving tool is what it is. It’s a moving billboard. They may say, “No, we don’t want to do that,” personally, they’re going to tell you they don’t have a budget; they all have a budget, otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business. Every company has some sort of a facet of a budget.
Mike C: Sure.
Mike Senica: That’s what I used to do, but I mean, again, as far as another element, be aware of what’s out there and think outside the box as far as marketing.
I’ve actually grown, I mean, we have four people that work with us and what we do is we just constantly always study like Joyce and Julius reports. Pick up the most recent Joyce and Julius. I look at who’s sponsoring these NFL commercials. Who wants to get involved? That’s all relevant sports marketing.
Mike C: Yeah. I mean, I can’t say there’s no new ideas, I mean there’s new ideas, of course, but as far as taking an idea from one industry and apply it to your industry —
Mike Senica: Right.
Mike C: Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be in motorsports; try to put together and think about some other things. I know not cross-function of marketing within different industries, but like you said; think out of the box and what’s not typical.
All right, so I have my last question here to backtrack for a minute. What do you see as the number one trait or characteristic you think will contribute to a student’s future motorsports career success, meaning how to get in and be successful? I think you already said it, but if you just want to summarize it real quick.
Mike Senica: I think the student has to have that drive at a young age. You had mentioned Jarett Andretti, which by the way is a really nice kid, you got to have that drive and determination. Again, trust me, I gave up a lot of my life to be where I’m at today. I mean, I never got married, I don’t have any kids; do I regret it? Yeah, of course, I do, but I knew I had to stay focused on the prize. I mean, I would never trade my life for anything because again, I’m very blessed and very fortunate to be doing this; it’s not a given.
To be racing in NASCAR, in the truck series, the K & N Series or whatever, whatever it is, even if it’s the wheel and modified, that’s the highest level of motorsport, so you’ve got to have that drive when you’re younger because again, that’s going to keep your tank full along on your journey. I tell people to always have an imaginary backpack and every time you do something, you can put it in your backpack and move on. You’ve done this, you’ve done that, you’ve accomplished this in your life. Definitely, stay in school. I’ll tell you, an education is such a vital part of it. Education is very important. I got educated at a young age; in fact, I am going back to school right now, so I’m doing other things. But education, it shapes who you become. Education is more of a level of discipline. It’s another four years of discipline for somebody to bustle down, but racing is a very competitive market, on and off the track.
When I have a sponsor telling me, “Well, this driver called and we told them we like dealing with Mike Senica,” it’s a good feeling because I know that I’m doing my job and that they’re happy. But, you know, again, the younger generation just have to be aggressive about that and don’t be afraid to do research. Don’t be afraid to ask question at the track. Don’t be afraid to talk to drivers. Don’t be afraid to talk to car owners because they’re all accessible.
Mike C: That’s great. That’s all I have. Thanks Mike!
Mike Senica: Thank you!