EXCLUSIVE: Signature Motorsports Looking Towards a Big Future


By Sam Tickell

Signature Motorsports aims to be around sportscar racing for many years. They aim to enter the ALMS at Lime Rock.

Anti-retro. The tag line for the new Citroen DS3. A car that embraced the name of the legendary Citroen DS models of the 60s and 70s. The DS19, 21 et al embraced something different, something new, something innovative.

Anti-retro is something that could also be applied to Signature Motorsports owner/driver, Matt Tarleton and his chosen competition – the ALMS.

The DS3 does not pay homage to the previous DS models by recreating them, it pays homage by taking the ideal and pushing it forward for the current generation. Matt does the same, pushing racing and the promotion of the team for the new world. Anti-retro.

Matt is a guy that likes to be in-control, likes to be looking to the future and likes, no loves, sportscar racing.

He is also an unashamed fan of the new ALMS TV package. When we chatted last, not only did he tell me of such things, we talked about it for longer than anything else.

Yes, it is topical right now, but Matt thinks that the live internet broadcasts and network highlights package it is the new dawn of a new relationship between TV, motorsports and the fans.

“One of the biggest advantages of the deal is that ALMS is getting into more households with ABC and ESPN2 – more mainstream TV channels – but they are also embarking on this new internet deal. If you stroll through your local electronics store you see Apple and Google getting involved in internet TV with set top boxes. Sony, Samsung and some other TV manufacturers are making their televisions internet ready.”

“In the past year or two a lot of television replays are being done with a lot of networks both here and abroad. So it is not only the television producers but also the hardware manufacturers that are embracing this new concept. I think that in three to five years you will see a fundamental shift in most broadcasts to the internet as it is much cheaper to distribute content via the internet rather than traditional methods.”

“We knew about the 2011 TV package before it went public. A of teams knew about the package before it went public, although the exact details were finalised – so that was a misconception.”

“When we made the changes with our marketing people, the number of impressions, simply because of the change in the new media and TV deal, nearly doubled. The CPM and cost per thousand value – the indicator that a lot of advertises use, went down substantially. Not only was that pleasing to the sponsors we were talking to, not only because we didn’t raise the rates to the sponsors we were talking to, as we started to talk to them when it was still a Speed TV deal.”

“This deal is like when email came in. It is quicker and faster to that electronically than the traditional methods.”

“It is also important to look at what is happening elsewhere too. In America we have a company called Netflicks, when they came onto the scene in the USA, the old player – Blockbuster got their ass kicked. They have been closing down stores, changing their business model and moved to the internet based business model. The same things with tablets and e-readers. Look at Barnes and Nobel and Borders. Banes and Nobel embraced the future and has gone strength to strength where Borders has gone into administration.”

“If you bring this back to sportscar racing, ALMS’ competitor, Grand Am is tied with NASCAR and has a traditional package. NASCAR’s attendance and TV ratings have fallen over the past couple of years. The sponsors recognise the future and embrace it. So you can embrace the future or you can die.”

This last point is crucial. The world is still a tough place to do business. The ALMS was being treated as the “red-headed step child” by Speed who were more concerned with NASCAR and their fans than ALMS and their fans. NASCAR and consequently Grand Am have the advantage of size and funds and innovation is needed to compete.

Signature Motorsports will enter the LMP2 category - something that should grow over the coming years. In the past, like here in 2009, it has been a good place for private teams to compete.

ALMS’ new package will open the sport up to more people both in America and worldwide. The hardcore fans now seem unhappy but they will still be able to watch it online and more people will have access to the sport.

“Once the original shock is over, people will adjust and it will work.”

Money and motorsport is difficult to come by and this is something that Signature Motorsports has worked hard on. The choice to race in the ALMS was not a quick decision. It has been the result of a long planning process and history in the sport as Matt’s father raced and owned a team in IMSA in the past.

Much effort has gone into ensuring Signature Motorsports is not a short lived team.

“This will be the realisation of a three year planning cycle. A lot of people think that a hugely long process to come racing but what we have been doing is building the team base and business base so our team is not a flash in the pan. We want to be here in the long term, not just two or three years. We have been very quiet in the PR for the team as we want to have everything line up before we announce anything or get people’s hopes up.”

Having an extended introduction to the ALMS has allowed the Signature team to chase sponsorship deals. You just have to look at Intersport in the ALMS or De Ferran/Dragon Racing in Indycar to know money is hard to come by. Changes in the TV deal and the ever progressing technological and ecological progress in ALMS is helping with sponsor negotiations.

“We have sponsors to bring to the car, we can’t announce anything yet but we are in negotiation with some of the largest companies in the world. We are going through various approval and due diligence processes at the moment which is why we can’t announce anything but the effort will be worth it.

“These companies are not slouches and will bring along a tremendous amount of promotional power just on their own, so it will be great for the Series and great for our fans.

“I have got two sponsors competing right now as they are in the same market sector. If they can play nicely together and who is going to pony up the money to get the car. It is a good position to be in and if I could divulge the company names, people would say it is a great problem to have. At the moment we have six companies that we are in the final negotiation stage for primary sponsorship. They will be signing anywhere from a three to five year contract. All of them are currently involved in Formula 1 – to give you an idea on the size of the companies we are talking to.”

Helping Matt in his quest to sign these sponsors has been ALMS and the ACO always being able to be the leading light in trying new things, keeping the racing and the business fresh.

“We are not a hobby racing team, we are a business and want to be sustainable. The price capping of LMP2 helped, but that wasn’t the key part of our decision to go race in LMP2 or the ALMS.”

“There will be growth in LMP2 and LMP racing in ALMS in the future. Many LMPC teams will go into LMP2 and LMP1 racing.”

There in an excitement in entering the competition, particularly as they will be the first to enter with the new Riley Roush Ford package.

Signature Motorsports will race with the new Riley MkXXV LM P2 in a coupe. There is much anticipation for Riley's new ACO/ALMS prototype.

“There are some technical factors and business factors as to why we chose the Riley package. Riley themselves will be assisting with the engineering extensively during the races. We won’t be hiring an engineer like we would with Lola. Riley will be involved. Bill Riley himself will be hands on at many of the races.”

“The flow through aerodynamic that the Riley uses will be an advantage of the Lola package. A lot of the drives that have driven the Riley cars have said that there seems to be more mechanical grip to the car.”

“In a playing field like we will have in LMP2, where it will be substantially levelled, there will have to be some way to gain an edge. That can be done through aero and mechanical grip and that will help us increase our competitiveness.”

“We will be the only people, at the start, to use the Riley, so we think that will give us an edge. Additionally Riley and Roush are based in North Carolina and we have worked out a relocation deal with Charlotte so we will be relocating our team from Florida to North Carolina so the team will be within a 20 mile radius of our chassis and engine supplier – a definite advantage.”

The car package is not the only thing to be excited about at the moment, although only teasers were given to the identity of drivers and key team personnel.

“We do have our drivers lined up but I cannot announce who they are but I can say that between the two drivers, we have four or five 24 Hours Le Mans victories, three of four 24 hours of Daytona victories. They are seasoned veterans – in driving, business and media wise.”

“We also have a tentative deal who worked as team manager for a prototype Le Mans team last year and we are bringing in personnel from throughout the world – even from Formula 1. We want the top experience level so we can be competitive as quickly as possible.

ALMS is just step one on the quest. The long planning cycle extends beyond ALMS and ILMC and Le Mans is also on the radar. In fact only running half a season in the ALMS has not been a mistake, and a small LMP2 field does not concern Matt.

“2011 is not really our focus. The fact that only a handful of LMP2 cars will be there in the second half of 2011, will help us as we concentrate on getting ready for 2012. A lot of people questioned the mid-season entry but it gives us more races to meld and to be fully prepared for 2012.”

“We also plan to be at Le Mans next year and into the future. It has been in our plans for a long time and we also look to race in the majority of the ILMC races next year too. We will have a partner to make ILMC easier logistically too although we might have to miss some ALMS races to do this.”

“Even longer term we hope to then introduce a second LMP2 car or partner with an LMP1 car.”

This could result in a partial ALMS schedule – something that Tarleton would like to avoid – and believes that better integration between the Le Mans Series, American Le Mans Series, Asian Le Mans Series, Le Mans and the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup could ensure that this does not happen.

He concedes, however, that given the complexity of the situation, being able to compete in the ALMS and ILMC might be too difficult. If this is the case though, a clear path to Le Mans is essential.

“I can see the ILMC becoming the premier sportscar series worldwide with the others being a supporting level to the ILMC. Sebring has been described in the USA as the ‘Superbowl’ but Le Mans is the ‘Superbowl’ of sportscar racing worldwide. Nothing can eclipse Le Mans and will remain the premier race of the ILMC.”

“You begin to look at it in a graded the level and as Championship, it will be the one that people want and the ALMS can become a support, or a feeder to that. Not a minor league, that would be inaccurate.”

“What I would like to see happening is for IMSA and ACO to work out their season better. ALMS is one of the few series in the world that has such a huge gap in their schedule. If you don’t go to Le Mans there is an eight week gap between Long Beach and Lime Rock. I would like to see a schedule that if an American team wanted to race in the ALMS and ILMC, you could race in both without having to choose races. That will rob the series of teams.”

“I think it will shake out over the next couple of years. I would like to see the ILMC change its racing a bit – in terms of where it is going. I would be thrilled to go to the Mid East – to Yas Marina. It is a premier track. I would also like to see a race at Interlagos.”

The ILMC is really growing into itself and what it will become. It is a difficult question to answer but I would like to see the ACO and the ALMS work together in such a way to keep all Le Mans series strong – as it is a great advantage and has such a great history.”

Riley last in the ALMS with the Riley & Scott MKIII and IIIC. These cars were used in World Sportscar Championship and ACO/ALMS from 1995 to 2005. The Doyal Racing MKIII is pictured here.

The motorsport program is also being documented by a television reality series. This reality show will be reality – not a false TV reality – something that has been demanded by Matt.

Race to Le Mans will be based around the team’s ambition – and hopeful success of racing at Le Mans. A production deal has been signed and an exciting TV deal has also been agreed upon.

Race to Le Mans came about a year and half ago. We were approached originally to do a motorsport based series with a major network in the US. We shot a pilot with them but it never went anywhere.”

“We were contacted by other television companies and we were confident that a reality TV show could work but we weren’t happy to go ahead with something that had ‘fake drama’. We shot the pilot of the original TV show – four days at the track, a couple days at an event a few days were scripted fights, arguments and dramatic scenes. It was appalling to see the level of fake reality in this show.”

“When we decided to go ahead with Race to Le Mans, we wanted a hands on to how the show was filmed, how the sportscar and ALMS were portrayed and how the team and I were portrayed. I feel that the ALMS and its fans are a higher brow – we don’t get in fist fights, we are professional.”

“We have talked with several networks and we have a tentative agreement with a company in the US and will be eight to 12 episodes per year for a three year run. We will have a docudrama on how an ALMS team run. You know racing produces its own drama – you don’t have to script it. There are a lot of things that people never seen. We will be filming the entire build of the Riley chassis – something that people don’t see. There will be a lot of technical information and we have talked to fans and we think that fans will embrace this.”

“We are excited to be doing this. It will be great for our sponsors too. But to be clear that racing in ALMS is not dependant on the show – it is an added bonus.”

The show wasn’t all a smooth ride. A version of the show that Matt started to make with another venture ended after a series of disagreements and evidence that ‘reality’ does not belong in the title ‘reality TV’.

We may have to wait for a midyear entry for this new team. But come midyear and come 2012, we should be ready for something exciting from this new breed of anti-retro racer.

We would like to thank Matt Tarleton from Signature Motorsports for his help with this article. In the coming weeks we will have a special feature on Riley in ACO and sportscar competition - keep an eye out for that!