We all know someone who has been there and got the T-shirt, but for the Hard Rock company, its Formula 1 involvement goes beyond just getting its name out there.
Its sponsorship partnership with Red Bull, and a high-profile presence it has at this weekend’s Miami Grand Prix and the forthcoming Las Vegas event, are much more about shifting perceptions of what it is about now.
While it may be best known for the chain of more than 250 Hard Rock Cafes around the world, its push into the hotel and casino business have seen it evolve in to an entertainment and lifestyle brand – and it sees F1 has the perfect way to get that message across.
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In fact, nothing helped it more in doing that than the Hard Rock Beach Club it set up at the Miami Grand Prix last year – and which is in returning in a bigger and better way for this weekend.
The iconic swimming pool and cabana set-up, bringing real sand to an F1 track as it hosted day-long parties, provided some of the more memorable images and sounds of last year’s Miami GP spectacle.
As Hard Rock International’s President of Entertainment, Keith Sheldon explained to Motorsport.com: “Hard Rock’s brand awareness is almost second to none. But brand perception is something that we’re looking to shift with consumers.
“It’s that we’re a global brand, and we are culturally relevant. We are just scratching the surface when it comes to our involvement with all the biggest and best cultural attractions.
“F1 certainly helps us break through to the consumer on an international level, more than really almost any other sport.”
Boom in the USA
Hard Rock was a founding partner of the Miami GP that takes place around the Hard Rock Stadium, and is one of the wealth of US sponsors that have become attracted to F1 as part of Liberty Media’s expansion effort in the country.
In the past, F1 struggled to make the breakthrough in the US, with events in Indianapolis, Phoenix and Dallas never lasting the duration.
But Sheldon believes that the current surge of interest is the result of the series having done something very different with the Netflix: Drive to Survive series.
“I think there was a core F1 fan base that existed in the United States to begin with,” he said.
“They watched the races on the weekends, they quietly celebrated a victory for their favourite team, but they didn’t really have an outlet to talk to anybody about it.
“I think Netflix brought Formula 1 to the mainstream. It’s brought some of the behind-the-scenes storylines to the forefront, and it’s created great talk value, which has expanded the audience.
“From a pop culture perspective, even if you’re not a big racing fan, it’s created an attraction where you want to go to Monaco, you want to go to Silverstone, you want to go to Mexico. These are great things for the sport.”
And it is events like Miami – with its Fake Marina as well as the Hard Rock Beach Club – that have helped further embellish F1’s glamorous image.
“Miami in particular, it’s the spectacle culture of South Florida,” Sheldon added. “People come out in droves for big events and Hard Rock, we’re in the big event business. So, it is the sort of perfect marriage in terms of F1’s popularity.
“Certainly, the Drive to Survive series on Netflix set the table for American involvement in the sport. But the growing popularity and growth in the United States in North America in general, I think is attributable to how great the racing has been. There are great storylines on and off the track. It was just that initial introduction that was required.”
The Red Bull partnership – and clever logo placement
The global F1 boom convinced Hard Rock to do more than just be involved with Miami and Las Vegas – it also committed to becoming a sponsor and partner with Red Bull.
It now hosts F1 watch parties at Hard Rock cafes, and runs promotions and loyalty offerings to make the most of its tie-up.
Having recently reached outside the USA through a partnership with footballer Lionel Messi, F1’s global reach meant it was a no-brainer for Hard Rock to find a way to capitalise on the opportunities of grand prix racing and especially the new younger audience.
Sheldon added: “I think that it’s F1’s international demographic, with races in so many gateway cities where Hard Rock has operations, which means there’s tremendous overlap.
“Plus I think it’s those first class experiences and being able to offer some of our top customers those money can’t buy experiences, whether it’s a garage tour in Milton Keynes that most don’t ever have access to, or a seat in the paddock club in Monaco or Mexico City, or a special walk down the pit lane in Miami.
“These are things that we can offer to our customers, whether it’s through prizes, giveaways, marketing promotions, or just creating key touch points with some of our top guests to show how much we care about their loyalty. All of these things are critical to us. And F1 allows us to check all those boxes.”
Hard Rock’s sponsorship deal with Red Bull isn’t the biggest the team has, but it has certainly been quite clever with where its logos are positioned.
The front wheel hub stickers are very noticeable from the on-board cameras. And, while its logos on the back of the drivers’ forearm sleeves may not be in-your-face most of the time, they come in to their own when Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez are on the podium – helping deliver a connection between the company and success.
As Sheldon explains: “When they’re holding that trophy in the air, there’s that association with Hard Rock and winning that we love.”
Embracing the future
Hard Rock’s bigger and bolder plans for the Beach Club in Miami this weekend are proof that it views F1’s newest calendar addition a success.
Last year was a step in to the unknown, as the Miami event was an F1 race that put much more focus on the off-track entertainment factor than has been the case at other venues.
Big acts like the Jonas Brothers and Tiesto have already been confirmed for the Beach Club this weekend, with the expanded footprint of the venue being tweaked to move it even closer to the track.
Feedback from fans, race bosses and Liberty Media was overwhelmingly positive.
“We were excited to be a little bit of a guinea pig,” added Sheldon. “And we’re going to double down on that theory that it worked and was effective. It was great for the race culture, and it was great for the sport and adding that entertainment element to it all.”
But while Miami will dominate attention this weekend, the buzz around the return of the Las Vegas Grand Prix is also growing.
Hard Rock, which last year completed a $1 billion purchase of the Mirage Hotel on the Las Vegas strip, is an official presenting partner of the grand prix and is set for a big profile over the weekend.
“It was a natural progression for us to get involved in Las Vegas too,” continued Sheldon. “When you’re talking about the first year of Miami Grand Prix, there were a lot of the uncertainties and unknowns that will unfold with Las Vegas. But we’re excited to be part of the mix.
“We’re excited to learn more about what’s going to happen there. But that should be an entire city takeover and, with the Mirage sitting at the 50-yard line of the Las Vegas Strip, it just made perfect sense for us to get involved.”
But while F1 is riding the crest of the wave in the US, grand prix racing’s bosses know that they must continue to work hard to keep interest levels high.
Sheldon is convinced, however, that there is every opportunity for F1 to have a lasting future in the country and not just be a passing fad.
“I think the racing has been so good that, as long as it continues to be that way, and as long as the storylines continue to be juicy, it doesn’t take a Netflix show to increase the popularity of the sport,” he said.
“There is ESPN’s media rights deal for Formula 1 and being able to show those races to so many American households. That’s another critical factor, just having access in North America to race weekends, seeing qualifying, seeing the races themselves on Sundays. That will be critical to the growth of the sport.
“I think with more American races, a rising tide lifts all ships here and hopefully continues to grow the popularity of the sport.
“We’ve certainly invested heavily in it. We’re firm believers that this is going to have quite a bit of staying power and become a staple in the sporting scene.”
Images: Provided by F1 Teams