Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Va-va-vroom: Vodafone’s vision for velocity

Gary knows Go Karting is an insanely pleasurable experience, but also knows that Vodafone’s efforts at revving the sport in Ghana may meet some pit stops

Two pedals are all you need: an accelerator and a brake. The rest is common sense. Those are the basics of having the drive of your life in the many available Go Karts (or simply, karting) at the Formula One Isllant Raceway, behind the Trade Fair Centre here in Accra. Yet the push needed, in many respects, to create this simple pleasure is anything but basic.

Let me take you back to one pleasant Sunday afternoon in 1999. My dad informs me that he is taking me for a drive at the Raceway. I look at him once. Then I blink, and look at him again. He is not joking. To put it mildly, I nearly go mad due to overexcitement.

At the time the most dominant person in the sport worldwide was Michael Schumacher. Yes, I wanted to be a journalist. Yes, I wanted to be pilot. Yes, I wanted to be a lawyer, a doctor and half a dozen things in between. And I wanted to be ‘Schumi’ too.

Even though I had just five or ten minutes on the track at the Raceway, it is up there with a few other things as one of the very best memories of my childhood.

So when I got the media invitation from Vodafone to go for test drive last week, the smile on my face could have lit up the Ohene Djan Stadium better than the floodlights ever could. I was not aware that the place had been revamped, as it had fallen a bit into disrepair for some time. And, like eleven years ago, I was not disappointed.

A bit about the sport
Karting, and motor sport in general, is not what you would call the typical Ghanaian pastime, not by a very long stretch. Yet it has always captured the imagination of people in this country, especially the males. The mad rush of adrenaline at speeding and overtaking has few comparisons.

When the former World Racing Champion Lewis Hamilton was asked to describe motorsport, he rightly described it thus: “This is the best feeling I've ever had. You cannot compare it to sex. But you know? I would say it is better than sex. It is!”

These are very true words from a soon-to-be legend. Although I came a distant seventh in the Vodafone Log-On Go Kart Media contest, it opened my eyes to a lot of things. Kart racing is usually used as a low-cost and relatively safe way to introduce drivers to motor racing.

Many people associate it with young drivers but as we witnessed, adults are also very active in karting.

The karts are rented by sessions (10 to 15 minutes usually) and they use sturdy chassis completed with dedicated bodywork providing driver safety.

The Raceway at Labadi uses an "Arrive and Drive" format which provide customers with all the safety gear (helmets, gloves and so on) where necessary and allow them to show up any time to race at a reasonable price, without the hassle of owning one's own equipment and gear. For 10 cedis, you can have the ride of your life.

Red letter affair
Vodafone’s love affair with the Raceway makes for interesting reading. The name Sandy Anderson may ring bells if you’ve been on the higher end of business in Accra for a long time. And it should. He is a well known venture capitalist who was one of the owners of Sunrise Hotel at North Ridge in Accra (now Alisa Hotel). This same Anderson owned the Raceway.

A little while after my first visit to the track twelve years ago, Mr. Anderson decided to sell the franchise. After he decided to cut his losses due to mostly financial reasons, the unavailability of prospective buyers meant the Raceway went down for a while.

Last year, a Ghanaian businessman, Ismail Lamptey, took on the challenge of reopening the place. As a business venture, managing it has not been easy for him, but he believes that the coming of Vodafone has been timely. “They came at the right time because the plans we have for go karting in Ghana need a huge corporate push. When we got the deal, we breathed a huge sigh of relief and are happy about this relationship.”

When Ismail got the place, he promptly completed its born-again status by calling it Formula One Isllant Limited. The next step was to get corporate backing. It took a long time but when they came on board, Vodafone agreed to invest an amount believed to be in the region of GHC 350,000 (about $250,000) to become the title sponsors for the event. Sikkens, sole representatives of Akzo Nobel paints in Ghana, are also part of the racing family.

The relationship is not only financial, though. Building on the work of the GTCares community projects programme, the Vodafone Foundation has partnered the National Road Safety Commission (NRSC) in a joint quest to reduce the road rage in Ghana. It seems the company also felt karting was a good conduit through which to spread their message.

As is typical of the Vodafone Foundation, the NRSC partnership has been very much on the quiet side. You do not hear a lot of noise about it, unlike MTN, whose 21 Days of Y’ello Care started on May Day and is always in the media.

Speed rumps and challenges
There is the temptation to think that the involvement of one of the biggest telecom giants in the world would make for easy pickings for Formula One in Ghana. That is not the case. When we started the media competition on Saturday, a few of the karts cars stubbornly broke down repeatedly, in protest at the lack of new parts. I asked the resident mechanics about the struggles they faced in keeping the machines going and they revealed how they had to improvise.

According to Nii, one of the mechanics, a single kart costs as much as $2500, not to mention import duty and the usual taxes. When the karts arrive, the issue of maintenance rears its persistent head. Most of the karts in Ghana are either fitted with one or two-stroke engines and are water-cooled, meaning that they need constant checking.

Though the mechanics on duty do a lot of improvisation, it was clear that some professional orientation was necessary. For Nii, the wayside ‘fitting shop tactics’ are not the best for karting, which he admits, is a specialized field. These and other factors have made things a bit challenging.

Yet, for the soft-spoken Cynthia Torto, Events and Sponsorships Manager for Vodafone, these challenges make the endeavour sweeter: “We do not only put our support behind the large and complete events, as it were. Vodafone is very much proud to be associated with ventures that have the promise of potential. Together, we will grow the sport to world class standards.”

Well said, but then she should be aware that the average Kofi and Kuukuwa do not give two tots about “ventures that have the promise of potential.” What the public wants is a smoothly run operation. So what am I telling Vodafone? Release the money for developing the sport, and be quick about it!

The guys at the Raceway can do the job and contrary to what many think, they do not need expatriates to this for them. After all, in September last year Vodafone Group Plc established the Vodafone Ghana Foundation, with an initial commitment of £200,000.

While reading for this piece, I learned that Vodafone is one of the major sponsors for Lewis Hamilton. Surely, Ms Torto and her department could weave Ghana into Hamilton’s plans for sometime in the coming years? I will not be naïve and say it’s that simple but I think getting him down here would be fantastic leverage for all concerned.

Sure, it would make for a nice bit of ‘out-of-Africa’ social responsibility media image for him. Of more concern to me, however, is the fact that Hamilton in Ghana could force the hand of the various sporting authorities to give karting and Formula One another look. Sometimes, it’s all in a day’s work for someone like Lewis.

Accelerating the sport
Now that I have dug into the company a bit, I must admit that there are shoots of progress visible for go karting in Ghana. The facility at the Raceway is the only one in West Africa. It is also one of just nine available on the continent. All the other eight can be found in….you guessed it….South Africa.

The media coordinator for the Log On event, Phillip Joni Quartey, who also headed the planning committee of the competition, mentioned that several events have been lined up in the immediate aftermath of this series to push the sport. There was talk about an inter-schools karting event very soon. That would be massive.

Kart racing is generally accepted as the most economic form of motorsport available. As a free-time activity, it can be performed by almost anybody from the age of 8 onward. This means that an inter-schools event would create a base of racing-loving kids who would be the bedrock of Ghana’s national teams in the future.

Speaking of national karting teams, the Vodafone and the Formula One Isllant management are said to be looking at a possible National Karting Competition that would start soon. And then there is a planned 4-nation tournament to cover the West African sub-region.

Exciting times are ahead for the riders and speedsters, certainly. However it does not take away the fact that there is a lot of work to be done to put Ghana on the racing map, be it in karting or Formula One. But I do have to agree with Cynthia Torto and her Vodafone crew who kept repeating the mantra: it’s our time and it’s a good start.