In 1997, Sofronas started getting regular rides from a variety of sources, and that gave him experience and exposure, which started turning the heads of potential sponsors. "I did a couple of races in Speed GT in a BMW M5 for Ed Arnold, but I was constantly searching for the right opportunities," he says. "I realized that if I wanted to make it in pro racing I needed to drive for an owner and have him support me completely as far as the infrastructure is concerned, the truck, the trailer and the racecar. That would allow me to focus on driving."
The following season, when the Arnold team disbanded, he moved to California, which offered a whole host of new problems. "All of my contacts were in Boston and back east," he says. "It was like starting over." Undaunted, Sofronas started visiting local BMW shops-if anything, just to make contacts, the basis for all sponsorship relationships.There's a lot of people at the tracks around the country who are doing the same thing you are, scratching for exposure, sponsorships and recognition, so you've got to stand out. You should first start working relationships in their area. Try local dealerships or shops in your hometown. The least you'll accomplish, if anything, is to start a relationship that may end in friendship or simple advice, but might go all the way to dollar signs. Remember that people aren't going to support you just because you knock on their door.As it just so happens, Sofronas met Fabryce Kutyba in his BMW performance shop and they hit it off almost immediately, forming not only a friendship but a business partnership as well. In the meantime, Kutyba turned him on to one of his clients who needed some instruction in road racing. Sofronas traded his experience and teaching time for the use of the car, a BMW M3 CSL, which proved to be a successful combination. "We used the BMW as a marketing tool, as we did a couple of club races where we dominated the field over a period of four years, taking 21 straight victories," he says.
It was at one of the local BMW club races that James met Hans Kopecky, owner and operator (not to mention a fellow racer) of SSF Imported Auto Parts in San Francisco, who began sponsoring Sofronas in a series of one-off races that season. With Kopecky's much appreciated help, Sofronas was able to attract other smaller sponsors and soon his car's panels began to fill up with stickers. Most times, support came in the form of free parts, which worked out just as well. "I would have had to buy those parts anyway," James acknowledges.
After showing his skills as a driver for the 2000 season, Sofronas flew up to San Francisco, and together with Kopecky put together a full-ride sponsorship-The Ride-for the following year, campaigning an M3 owned by T.C. Kline in World Challenge GT as well as running a GMG-prepared 328i in the USTCC, where Sofronas won the Championship, dominating the series with five wins. His success started to pay off, as print media began to take notice, gaining him press exposure in Sports Car, Car and Driver and Sport Compact Car magazines, as well as this one. The icing on the cake was when one of his races was televised on the Internet at www.bmw.com.
This is a good lesson illustrating that you have to really use all of the media outlets. They're usually starved for good content and you've got a story to tell. Start by sending press releases to the magazines and Internet sites, but especially to the companies that sponsor you. You have to hustle yourself to get the exposure from wherever you can. Don't forget to include all of the people and companies that have helped you along the way, as the worse thing you could do is inadvertently turn your back on someone. You've got to include everybody and you have to always keep them up to date on the happenings on your race team. "For my sponsors over the years," Sofronas adds, "I have always taken photos, sent them results, sent thank you letters. You have to constantly justify their investments."
Honest appreciation is the name of the game here."Hans Kopecky was the first one to believe in me, and he wrote a big sponsorship check that paid for the whole year," Sofronas says. "The car wasn't that competitive, but what it did was give SSF more exposure in the auto racing world. So that was a big leap of faith, because they had never sponsored anyone at that level before." James ended up 15th in points out of 60 drivers. It was an investment that paid both ways, as GMG orders approximately $20,000 worth of parts from SSF a month. "I have never forgotten the support that Hans gave me several years ago, and, in fact, I still thank him every time I get the opportunity to do so, as I did when I was interviewed on Speed last year after a podium finish in the BMW at Sebring," Sofronas says. " You can't forget the people that helped you get where you are today."But dreams, being what they are, weren't enough for Sofronas, Kutyba and the crew at GMG. They wanted their own car, and with SSF's backing they plunked down the money for a couple of BMWs to compete again in World Challenge. Their motives were no less lofty than before. "We wanted to control our own destiny," Sofronas says. "We wanted to maintain our own car through the GMG Racing side of the business and show our sponsors that we could definitely do this on our own." Independence is respectable; nobody is willing to help the helpless.
Then came some good news, something James Sofronas had been waiting for his whole career. "I had helped Walter Swick get TecMark, a BMW race shop, up and running in Ohio and in turn he helped us transport our cars around the country," he recalls. After some good finishes in 2003, Swick was building a car for Nic Johnson and offered a second BMW to Sofronas, saying, "Why don't you guys sell your car and I'll prepare you a BMW for the 2004 season?" In the world of sponsored racing that was a big break, because they now had a car that was guaranteed competitive. "I ran with Nic Johnson in World Challenge, and we finished fourth and second respectively in the Championship, but did help BMW win the Manufacturer's Championship that year," James says.At the end of last year, GMG expanded to focus on Porsches and that's when they got the idea to campaign a Porsche Cup Car in Speed World Challenge GT. "We decided we wanted to buy a car so we could showcase our capabilities as they relate to high-performance Porsches," says Sofronas. "It was good for us to show people that we could still compete even though we were a small team. It legitimized our efforts at GMG and our street tuning program." This proved successful right from the get-go as Sofronas and the GMG Porsche finished on the podium at Lime Rock this year, in front of the Porsche factory teams. After some ups and downs, the future looks bright for GMG, Sofronas and his team, and it was because he didn't take no for an answer and always looked to improve his position, never settling for what was given to him and always striving for the maybes, the what ifs and the could haves.
The key to being a successful professional racer is to be a professional first. You have to be a professional when you're on the track and off the track. You're a spokesperson, a representative, of the companies that sponsor you. When someone doesn't act professionally or they're immature or they just don't handle themselves in a proper manner in public, it doesn't represent the company well-or themselves.
Sponsorship is a business, and as a responsible cog in that gear, you can make or break your career, your season and your team. There are billions of dollars poured into countless racing venues around the world each year, from the karts to F1 and everything in between. There's something out there for the right person, one that can sell himself as a good investment, not to mention one hell of a good driver.Though finding support and sponsorship isn't easy, it isn't impossible. Now, get to work.
From Charlie Hayes' book Get Sponsored, here are his top ten tips to help you get sponsored and keep the sponsors happy
1.Don't send proposals blindly to companies. They will more than likely end up in the trash.
2.After meeting a prospective sponsor in person, follow up with a presentation that explains everything about your team, career, car and future plans, including market, venue, and audience opportunities for the sponsor.
3.Know your numbers. Make sure you understand every cost that your team will incur and who will pay for them, up front.
4.Learn how to create a commitment from your sponsors. Know how to make things happen by being unwilling to settle for "no."
5.Persistence pays. Never give up no matter how far-fetched the situation seems.
6.Automate by using computer programs to keep in constant contact with your sponsors. Check out Symantec's Act! for Windows or another contact management software.
7.Never stop learning, but know what is good advice and what is fluff.
8.Listen to others and find out what they really want orneed from your team.
9.Give your word and keep it.
10.Accountability. Be responsible for your actions. If you make a mistake, be the first one to admit it and quickly resolve the issue.