Ever wondered why Auckland Council would tip money into having the V8 Supercars race here? We sure have, so with the V8 Supercars ITM 500 Auckland taking place over November 6–8, 2015 at Pukekohe Park Raceway, we took the chance to find out.

For this, we figured there was no better option than having a sit down with Brett O’Riley, the CEO of Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development (ATEED) — essentially the man responsible for making sure the event delivers results for Auckland.

NZV8: First up Brett, a bit of background; how did you come into working here at ATEED?

Brett O’Riley: I’ve got an interesting background. I started my working life as a sports journalist when I was still at high school, as a club reporter in Wellington. So I’ve been involved with sport all my life — I’ve been involved in motorsport actually all my life as well, now that I think about it.

I worked in the Beehive very early in my career, before spending the next 25 years working either in the private sector or in state-owned enterprises — about 20 of those 25 years in telecommunications. I decided that I wanted to do something different, so I went on to, firstly, work as the founding CEO for the ICT Industry Association, then I was the deputy chief executive of the Ministry of Science and Innovation, working quite closely with ATEED. Then the job came up here and I thought it was a great opportunity to get involved with something that makes a difference to the city you live in. You don’t get many opportunities in your career that are like that.

So if I look at the sort of content that we deal with at ATEED, it’s a bit of an amalgam of lots of things that I’ve done in my career. It’s also a lot of things that I haven’t done in my career too, because we’re so involved and we have such a big mandate. But I feel like I’ve got a lot of content knowledge that I can bring to the table, and hopefully, at the age of 53, I know a little bit about managing things. And it’s a great place to be — five years into an amalgamation I’d like to think that we’re making a difference for Auckland, and the V8s have been one of those things that I guess have epitomized our willingness to be bold, and to take what we thought was a pretty calculated risk in getting it back [from Hamilton], and then build on it to make it something that’s bigger than it’s ever been before.

What is it about the V8 Supercars that excites you the most?

I think there’s a whole range of things. I mean one of the things that we’ve done is looked at motorsport in general, and we have some aspirations for the V8s. Increasingly we’re moving our thinking towards festivals, and not just festivals in the sense of an event, but festivals that can become a theme. So for a motorsport festival it might be a case of the V8s, the Red Bull Drift Shifters event, the Trolley Derby, Targa rallies, but also launches of new cars, brands, motor shows, programmes to encourage young people into careers in the industry — all of that kind of stuff. So for us the V8s are a great flagship event for that sort of activity. Why? Because it’s a pretty iconic series, and I’ve been through it in lots of different iterations.

I was one of the organizers of the Nissan Mobil 500 back in the day in Wellington, and in Pukekohe in those days, when I worked for Mobil oil. So I’ve seen it stand the test of time through a whole lot of different challenges. So it’s pretty iconic for both New Zealand and Australia. I think it engages with people because, effectively, you’ve got drivers driving cars that we can drive ourselves — you can go home and jump in a car that’s pretty similar, in a broad sense. I think it sort of epitomizes the old trans-Tasman rivalry, particularly at the moment where we’ve got probably more Kiwi drivers doing well in it than we’ve certainly had for a long time — since favourites like Jim Richards, who was one of my favourites growing up.

So I think it captures people’s imagination, and we’ve seen Jim Richards, Robbie Francevic, Greg Murphy, and others come through that — and it’s a good way of inspiring people to be interested in the sport.

Thinking about the 2015 ITM 500; outside of the V8 Supercars what other elements of the event are you looking forward to?

Well we’re always trying to leverage the events as much we we can, so this year we’ve got a drive in movie at the ASB Showgrounds amongst others. It’s always a great opportunity to activate the city around motorsport, and remind people that Auckland has a great history in motorsport. Pukekohe has a great history, we’ve had some of the greatest motor racing drivers have driven that track over many years. We’ve got a Bruce McLaren movie coming up, which is pretty exciting. But I think the big event itself this year is the drive in at the showgrounds, which should be cool.

I think that most events we have, the closer the fans can get with the drivers, the better. And that’s always one of the things that’s impressed me with the V8 drivers. They’re really good. Obviously last year we had Scott McLaughlin and his famous jandel, and that sort of thing brings colour to the sport. And they’re a colourful bunch of characters.

This is the first time holding the event in November, so it’s a bit of a change for us. Previously the event was very early in the season, whereas this time it’s getting down to the sharp end of [the series], so that’ll bring a little bit more excitement to the fans, and to the racing — not that the drivers don’t go hard anyway.

The hero is the V8 Supercars, but in and around that are a whole lot of related events that can make it a good experience. There are lots of legs of the V8 Supercars, and we know that people from New Zealand go to Bathurst and other events in Australia, so we know they have choice, so we can’t just say that because we’ve got the only event in Auckland that it’s a given that people are going to come. We’ve got to give them a world-class V8 event, but also lots of other things around it that give people the confidence to think ‘wow, it’s a good time to come [to Auckland]’.

Part of the rationale of moving the V8s to November is that it’s a less busy time from a visitor economy point of view, so more hotel rooms are available — typically they’re a little bit cheaper, so it gives people more opportunity to attend the event, whereas in previous years it’s been a pretty busy time. I think it was fantastic what we did with Anzac day, and involving the RSA in it last year, but it was at a very busy time for the city. This time it’s still going to be busy, as you can see with the amount of events that are on, but in general it’s the beginning of our tourism peak season, so we know that we’ve got more beds, and people can be certain that they will be able to get accommodation. Based on the racing this year, they can bet that they’re going to be pretty certain they’re going to get a very good weekend.

What has Auckland gained from hosting the ITM 500?

We get a lot of economic benefit out of it, that’s how we measure our investment in it, so we’ve had good GDP (gross domestic product) contributions. For us, the Australian-visitor market is a key market, it’s a market where historically New Zealand and Auckland have not performed as well as we have with other markets. We don’t get as much of the growth as we could. So, being involved with a series like the V8 Supercars, which has such a high cut-through in Australia, and exposes Auckland — not just as a racing destination — but as a destination in its own right, not just a gateway. So I think we can directly point to GDP and visitation benefits from the actual event itself, and we can also directly point to the fact that it positions Auckland in a different way in Australia, and that’s really positive.

Do you ever wonder or think about what it would have been like to host the ITM 500 event on the streets of Auckland City, and is it an idea that you think might ever return?

I think street racing is really hard for cities. Having been involved in the [Nissan] Mobil event in Wellington, which I think was the most iconic street race that New Zealand’s ever had — and that’s no disrespect to Hamilton, it’s just a nightmare. It’s a great spectacle from a television product point of view. But in terms of remediation and just staging the event, I think it’s really difficult. Something like the Drift Shifters lends itself much more to the street because it’s self-contained.

Something else about street racing that I’ve found is that it’s not such a great experience to watch it. What I love about Puke is that you can go down there and you can watch the whole track and you’ve got the opportunity to see a whole lot of different things. As much as I used to love the Wellington street race, yes there was the odd vantage point where you could see the whole track — if you were on the wharf side you could see the front straight and you might get a glimpse of the back straight through the lagoon — by and large you actually spent a fair bit of time, if you were lucky enough to be in a corporate box, with one eye on the track and one eye on the television. At Puke, you spend most of your time watching the racing. We’re always up for doing event activations in the city, because I think that brings the city to life, but I think that they’re actually much better off to be more tightly focused. Trying to put a racetrack in the middle of the city is very, very hard — and it costs. It costs a lot for the event organizer itself, and it costs a lot for the city in terms of remediation afterwards. I remember that the bills used to be huge in Wellington, in terms of just a resealing of the track.

The other great thing about having it at a circuit like Pukekohe is that, as a result, there’s been an increase in the investment within that circuit — first by V8 Supercars and now obviously also by Counties Racing Club. They’ve just resealed some of the track, so that means that the event actually creates an amenity that can be used 365 days of the year, or maybe it’s 361 if you discount the four days of the V8s. So that’s much more of a legacy I think for the motorsport community than just having a track put up for a week or so for a street race. You just have to look around the world to see that most street races don’t last for too long, because the novelty soon wears off, and the costs become difficult.

I think, when you’re trying to show off a city for the first time to people, there is obviously an attraction [to street circuits]. You could close off a section of the city and have cars doing time trials or something like that instead, which is a lot easier to do than to run the whole race and everything else. We’re always up for those kinds of ideas, like when we had the World Rally Championship there a few years ago — I think that kind of stuff brings the city to life, and reminds people that the event is here, just as effectively as actually having a full street-circuit event.

I remember that the last event that [the WRC] had here, they had a special stage at the Auckland Domain, which looked great on television, but it was just horrendously costly to organize.

What’s your opinion of Pukekohe Park Raceway, as both a circuit and a facility?

Well I think that the drivers like it, and that’s always a good start. And spectators like it. We’ve seen significant upgrading of the facility with the V8s coming back. We’ve talked to Counties Racing Club about their long-term plans for it, and they want to keep investing in the amenity because we think that it’s a good spectator experience — but it could be better for the fans, and that’s something that we’ve shared with the Counties Racing Club. They’ve said that they’ve got plans for developing that whole area too. So I think that’s good, because we do want it to stand out and be unique. We’ve tried different things, like the fan trail, which we’ve used, but we found that despite the fact that we made public transport available, most fans still chose to drive or bus there, which you can kind of understand since it is a motor-racing event. I think that the track is good, and I think that the changes made to the track when the V8s came back — the adding of the extra chicane and the corner at the back of the track — has gone really well. Some drivers were a little bit sceptical about it originally, but I think that they really enjoyed it.

There have been a few rumours of Hampton Downs launching some sort of future package to take over the event. What do you think of that?

I’ve heard those same rumours myself. At the end of the day it’s V8 Supercars’ decision. When the event came back to Auckland, [V8 Supercars] evaluated three venues, which at that stage were Hampton Downs, Pukekohe, and Whenuapai Airbase, and we had a look at those. At that time — based on the criteria that V8 Supercars had, because ultimately they have to be confident that they can make money out of it — they felt that Pukekohe ticked all the boxes for them, which Hampton Downs didn’t. One of those concerns at the time was that they hadn’t really finished Hampton Downs — they’d finished part of it, but not the rest of it. There were questions about how many fans it could accommodate, and there were questions about the financial position of the Hampton Downs company-ownership structure at the time.

The financial stuff would seem to have been sorted out by Tony Quinn and his business interests becoming a major shareholder. I don’t know what their plans are for further expanding Hampton Downs, and I’m sure that the V8 Supercars will be keeping a close eye on it. But we’re open-minded — it’s about finding the best venue we can in this area for events. Clearly it’s easier for us to invest money when the event is in Auckland, and Hampton Downs is not. But we’ve sponsored the Worlds’ Masters Games in 2017, and we’re using two venues outside of Auckland, so I think at the moment we know that it’ll be at Pukekohe for another two years, then we’ll see where it goes after that. Having two world-class tracks for motorsport people to use within Auckland is fantastic, and a little bit of competition between the two of them probably isn’t a bad thing.

They are different experiences. I know that Hampton Downs is probably more of a driver’s track, because that’s its genesis — it’s been developed by motorsport enthusiasts. One of the questions was ‘how good is it for a spectator? Can you get the same viewing positions?’. I think that’s one of Pukekohe’s advantages; it’s not as technical a track as Hampton Downs, but it has a better spectator experience. But the V8 Supercars will be in the best possible position to judge that.

You wouldn’t rule out ATEED supporting the ITM 500 if it were to shift to Hampton Downs then?

No, I think we’d be silly to rule it out because ultimately it’s about what’s the best venue for the event. When they brought the proposition to us, they said that from their perspective they wouldn’t run anywhere else other than Pukekohe — so that didn’t really give us any other options.

Nobody can predict the future, and who knows, Whenuapai might raise its head again as a potential venue. Though I think for the reasons that we talked about before with street races, generally the event lends itself to coming to a circuit — but who knows, things can change. We’ll be open-minded about it.

There’s a few people under the surface who aren’t too happy with the low support — not just from ATEED, but from everyone — that domestic racing classes get. From your point of view, what do you think domestic classes can do to help themselves out a little bit?

In our case our investment in events is based on a set criteria that we agree upon with council, which is based around GDP and visitation. So if people want funding from us, and their event’s not going to tick those boxes, it’s going to be pretty hard to get it. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a V8 event — we didn’t provide any funding for the Red Bull Drift Shifters, but we did help with the facilitation of it, and that was because we thought that it was pretty iconic, and that it showed off the city in a particular way, and that it was quite innovative — being ‘Mad Mike’ Whiddett’s idea, and Red Bull’s got aspirations for it to become a global circuit. So being able to say that it started in Auckland, and for Auckland to be part of that, would be pretty significant.

We’ve been involved with rally before, but that’s obviously become prohibitively expensive and quite competitive to try and get a hold of. So I’d ask people in the motorsport community to understand what that criteria is, and respond to that. We’ve had discussions with Targa rally, because that’s not a big spectator event, but it brings a lot of money into particular areas. So we’re open-minded, but for us it’s going to be hard to support a club meeting. There are other parts of the Auckland Council though — the community development arts and culture area provide funding for some smaller sporting events, as do local boards, who have some local-event funding. So if it’s something that’s going to make a difference in a local area, then I think that there’s always an opportunity.

Activities that develop local talent is another area that we’re keen on. Auckland’s short of truck drivers, we’re short of mechanics, and people in that whole area. So what opportunity do these events have to stimulate interest from young people in [these types of] careers? So there’s probably a number of different angles you can come at beyond the ‘traditional way’ that people try and sell sponsorship propositions in motor racing, which is generally in the form of television coverage or media coverage. Generally that’s not enough these days on its own. It needs to be a bit bigger than that.

From a financial point of view, how successful has the ITM 500 been since it was taken back over by Auckland and ATEED?

Well it’s hit its GDP targets. Last year we had 125,000 people attend over four days, which was good. So we’re really pleased with it as a proposition. We’re always keen to try and grow the number of people that are attending the event, the number of people that are watching the event on television, and then just the general awareness that people have about the event. So constantly doing different things that force people to go ‘wow, I didn’t expect them to do that’ is quite important.

I think the fact that we have so many Kiwis driving in it now has been fantastic — I’m not claiming any credit for that though. Having the event here every year gives the opportunity for locals to get involved, maybe as spectators. But definitely if you’re aspiring to be part of the motorsport industry — and I think people forget that in addition to the drivers, there’s opportunities for Kiwis as mechanics and working in the teams. Someone once said to me that if you look around the world at every Formula 1 team, every Superbike time, you’ll find a Kiwi somewhere. So it isn’t just about creating the Scott Dixons and the Fabian Coulthards, it is actually also about the career paths for Aucklanders into those events. Having an event like that here gives people a chance of seeing that with their own eyes, and hopefully some of them manage to get involved. There’s been a few people: Earl Bamber a few years ago managed to get a few drives into V8 Supercars, and he won Le Mans this year. So it has the ability to impact things directly, but it also has the ability to impact them indirectly.

With the incoming changes to the V8 Supercar championship in 2017, are you still as confident in the series as a product as you were when you got the rights back in 2013?

Yeah I think so. I still think that it’s a pretty iconic series. As someone who has been following these cars for most of my life, I’ve seen changes in the past to the class, and it’s sustained beyond those changes. As long as it resonates with fans, for the same reasons that I think it does today — that I can watch a race and I can jump in a similar car myself — I think it has a lot of credibility.

The Ford and Holden rivalry has been so strong that I think a few people thought that the series might die with that, but the V8 Supercars guys have done a great job in introducing other vehicle makes into the series, and now those vehicle makes are competitive — Volvo’s competitive, Mercedes’ is competitive — so I’ve got no reason to think that these changes will be any different from the changes that they’ve made in the past. I think it’s pretty sticky with people, because of that history. And I guess ultimately, what makes people want to watch the V8 Supercars class? It’s incredibly competitive to watch, the vehicles are pretty even, it’s a busy grid — and I don’t think any of that stuff is going to change.

My memory’s not perfect, but I think that we’ve been down this path before, and it’s survived that. I think there’s that reality that engine technology is changing all the time, and obviously there’s been a focus on sustainability and changes in fuel for the cars over the recent years, so as long as the driving is good, and the teams are competitive, I think people will watch. There’s naturally a great romance for the V8, but I think that the racing is good enough, I don’t know whether people care whether it’s a V8 or not. But time will tell.

We couldn't agree more. Thanks for your time Brett, and we look forward to seeing you at the event.

As part of celebrating the return of the V8 Supercars to Auckland, ATEED has organized a free drive-in movie on October 31, at Auckland's ASB Showgrounds. While it’s a free event, you need to register in advance to gain entry, which you can do here.