Air Race 1 is the world’s premier airborne motorsport series and has held high-profile World Cup events annually since 2014, when it brought together the sport’s three governing bodies under the same international banner for the first time. After a successful 2016 edition in U-Tapao, Thailand, the event will return there in November 2017 for another instalment of thrilling aircraft racing. Here Jeff Zaltman, the chief executive of Air Race 1, explains the origins of the series, reveals his plans for its development, and discusses the commercial opportunities around the sport.
SportsPro: How would you sell Air Race 1 to a newcomer to the sport?
Jeff Zaltman: Air Race 1 is pure motorsport. It’s the World Cup of formula one air racing, the fastest international motorsport and air race in the world – there’s frankly nothing else like it.
Eight planes race head-to-head on a tight oval circuit at speeds of over 450 kilometres per hour just metres above the ground, with pilots vying to be the first one to cross that finish line.
The pilots are diverse, among the most elite in the world and are unbelievably talented. They really are true heroes of the skies.
Can you explain a bit about the history of Air Race 1 and how the series and your events have developed?
It’s one of the oldest motorsports as it traces its roots all the way back to the 1930s. It’s been known in aviation since 1947 as formula one air racing.
The Air Race 1 World Cup is the first international title for the sport and is sanctioned by the official governing bodies – the International Formula One Air Racing Association (IF1), Association des Pilotes d'Avions de Formules (APAF) and Formula Air Racing Association (FARA)
In 2014 the Air Race 1 brought together the IF1, APAF and FARA to create the first ever international title – the Air Race 1 World Cup.
More and more teams are now entering the sport and new organisations and stakeholders are getting involved as a result of this development – in 2014 we had just 13 teams at our traditional race in Reno and this year we expect over 30 teams to sign up and we may cap it at 24. We have since held races in Europe, Africa and Asia as well as our original home, the USA, and the sport continues to grow in popularity
What about your own history in the sport, and how you came to be involved in Air Race 1?
I’ve worked in the sports industry for about 15 years now, most of it in air sports of various kinds and some of it in automotive motorsport. I’ve even dabbled in sailing and strongman and other sport segments. But the bulk of my sports career has been in air racing.
I first decided to explore air racing simply by being a private pilot and meeting some very accomplished pilots who do these sports – and yet no one knew about it. It seemed crazy to me that such amazing skills were not showcased better. So I set out to bring air racing into the mainstream.
I eventually settled on the sport called formula one air racing, because it has been around for over 70 years with a huge fan following already – but it just needed to crack that glass ceiling.
I’m now the exclusive promoter and organiser for the sport and work closely with all the stakeholders to develop it and professionalise it. This sport offers everything a fan would want from drama and technology, to human interest and racing of course. I’m very proud to be a part of it.
What are the commercial opportunities around the race, and how are you engaging sponsors and partners?
There’s an abundance of opportunity around the sport, especially because it hasn’t been ‘tainted’ by too much branding or dominant branding in the past.
Just about every commercial opportunity that exists in other sports is available in our sport, yet it is untapped and a clean slate. So it is an exciting and highly unusual chance for partners to really make an impact with truly unique content. We own all the rights to the event so we can adapt a program to any marketing need.
Do your sponsors mainly come from a traditional motorsport base, or are you finding different brands want to be part of the unique spectacle of Air Race 1?
You could argue that we’re a Venn diagram of motorsport, action sports and air sports, but I think we’re more than that.
Aviation appeals to one of the broadest ranges of demographics out there, as demonstrated by air shows, which are the largest live audience draw in Europe, second only to football!
But as an air sport we have that additional layer of storytelling. So our fans are drawn from all ages and all demographics and both genders, globally. In fact that makes it hard for us because brands typically want to see just one tiny specific demographic that matches up with their brand and we cover most of them. Its ironic that our Achilles heel is that too many people like our sport! So in a nutshell, we appeal to a broad range of sponsors.
What is the decision-making process behind where you take your events?
There is a range of influencing factors that decides where we go. The first of which is feasibility. But with the right venue in mind we then look at strategic factors and where we can reach new audiences.
The Air Race 1 was the first ever pylon air race (multiple planes racing) to be held in Africa, and the first to be held in Asia. We are always breaking new ground and we look for host cities that want to break that ground with us and stand out from the rest. Our event is very high profile and really showcases each venue in a way that many other sports can’t. So it is a highly impacting and low-cost opportunity to promote a destination.
You’re returning to Thailand this year for the Air Race 1 World Cup. How do you rate the country as a destination for major sporting events, and what makes it such a perfect fit for Air Race 1?
Thailand has surprised us – pleasantly – at every step of the way. At any new location we have a lot of hurdles to overcome, and they always do get overcome because we’re very thorough and careful in who we select.
But as the first air race in the history of Asia and in a country where there is little private aviation it posed more potential challenges. That said, they were only ‘potential’ challenges and in the end they were among the most professional and capable and supportive people I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
All of our partners from the airport to the national government to our sponsors and our main event management partner were all exceptional and delivered our event impeccably. We can’t wait til November this year to see all our friends again!