A Real-World Builders' Look at How to Get a Vehicle Project Sponsored
By Eric Colby
The SEMA Education builders panel included (left to right) moderator RJ de Vera, TJ Hunt, Bisi Ezerioha, Gabby Downing and Kyle Huhnhausen.
T.J. Hunt has more than two million followers on YouTube. He pioneered automotive influencing and has turned it into a lucrative career. At last fall's SEMA show in Las Vegas, he was on a panel during a session entitled "How to Get a Sponsor for Your Next Build."
"You're not going to get sponsored because you're cool," said the president of Hunt and Company, an apparel business he launched. "It's because that company thinks you're going to make them more sales. For a start, you have to see yourself as a salesman for that company."
The session was one of more than 70 educational presentations during the Show that ran last November 1-4 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Joining Hunt were RJ de Vera, SEMA vice president of marketing, who moderated the session; Bisi Ezerioha, president of Bisimoto Engineering, in Ontario, California; Kyle Kuhnhausen, founder and president of Kuhnhausen Metal Concepts in Creswell, Oregon, and popular content creator and competitor Gabby Downing from Fredericksburg, Virginia.
All the panelists had humble starts. Ezerioha is originally from Nigeria and worked his way up from building a Honda CRX drag car to racing for American Honda. Today, he has relationships with many original equipment manufacturers. Kuhnhausen and Downing both started with Hondas as well, with Kuhnhausen winning the Young Guns category in the 2018 SEMA Battle of the Builders. Downing has driven drift cars, off-road vehicles and started with videos on basic repairs, including oil changes. She recently bought a C5 Corvette and is one of the most popular influencers in the automotive aftermarket.
"These are great examples of people who started building a car and now they have these great businesses," said de Vera. "For us at SEMA, a pillar is the idea of innovation and opportunity. Innovation isn't just about building the business, it's about building yourself."
Inevitably, a first project is going to start in a person's garage and it's going to be self-funded. A build also needs to be chronicled so others can follow the story. Recalling his experience in the Battle of the Builders, Kuhnhausen said, "It takes guts to start a build and put it all on social."
Most first-timers start with what they're given, noted de Vera. Ezerioha's first modification was by accident. He had an '88 Honda CRX HF. He started his car one morning and the exhaust was louder than usual because it was perforated. "It sounded cool, and I liked it," he said. He went to a local Honda dealer and got a quote of $600 to fix it. "I couldn't afford it, so I went to a local muffler shop and they put a Dynomax Ultraflow on my car," he said.
The HF designation for his car stood for high fuel economy, and Ezerioha called that a "blessing in disguise" because it was the lightest CRX made. He got into drag racing and when it came to interacting with people in the pits, Ezerioha did what came naturally. All the other competitors kept to themselves to try to maintain a competitive advantage. But Ezerioha was an open book. He had his sponsors' literature displayed on a table and he interacted with fans. A representative from American Honda noticed Ezerioha's efforts and asked if he would race for the company. "My passion is what allowed me to attract a financial sponsorship," he said.
Downing started with her own CRX. "I had just gotten out of high school and I needed something that was old and affordable, and a Civic was too boring," she said. "It had 18-in. wheels that were way too big and had two big sub-woofers in the back. I modded it, I raced it and I rallied it."
Hunt started with a BMW 328, saying, "I did some V6 things to try to make it fast, tuning and springs and taillight tints, just some basic stuff; but that's kind of what cracked the seal for me. Then I got into the forums and trying to figure it all out."
It Starts With Parts
The first step in the sponsorship process is usually parts. Ezerioha's first backing came from SoCal Racing Wheels. "I met with the owner and he was an engineer as well, and we just hit it off," he said. "It taught me early on that relationships are important with sponsorships."
Kuhnhausen was four years into a five-year build and took the car to a local show in Oregon. He met the president of Radium Engineering of Clackamas, Oregon, which makes performance accessories for cars and trucks. "He loved the passion I had and the innovation I was doing on the car, and he said, 'Give me a call and we'll get you whatever you need," said Kuhnhausen.
He continued, "I made the call and about a week later, an unmarked package showed up on my door. I said, 'That's cool, this guy believes in me so much that he's willing to help me amplify my build,' which went on to win the Young Guns division of Battle of the Builders and kind of get my career going." Today, Kunhausen is a Battle of the Builders judge.
All the cars that KMC builds now get Radium parts. "I've got a lot more eyes on what I do to feed business their way, so it's a cool relationship," said Kuhnhausen. "They gave me the early edge and now I can give that back."
Early in her career, Downing got lots of parts sent to her to use in videos. One of her earliest partners was B.F. Goodrich. When the tire giant first reached out to her, she thought someone was pranking her.
"I have had a hard time understanding my value and believing that I had anything to give back," she said. "When they reached out and believed in me and my value and being different, they're someone I wanted to continue to work with."
Hunt was running a Subaru BRZ and sent an email to Subaru parts distributors to introduce himself. "I got lucky because the person who saw the email was 18 and actually a viewer of my channel," said Hunt. "His boss was probably twice his age and had no idea."
Hunt landed a phone call with the boss and explained his presence on YouTube. He explained that if they gave him a store credit on parts, Hunt would do install videos.
"They took a shot in the dark and it was a hit for them," said Hunt. "It opened up that door and showed me how to leverage what I had."
Once a shop or individual is successful, the relation often organically moves to the next level--financial sponsorships.
Downing said that her first financial sponsor remains a partner today. "They saw what I could do if I had financial assistance," she said. "I'm all about proving myself and making content and showing it."
Kuhnhausen's content has always been based on his build process. "I found a company that I don't have to sell their product because my simply using their product sells their product and that's SendCutSend laser cutting service," he said. "The partners you want to work with are the ones that you would still be working with even if you didn't have a deal."
Hunt's first financial sponsorship came through de Vera when he worked in marketing for Meguiar's Inc. Today the wax and polish company is Hunt's longest-standing partner. "You need to know the sponsor's demographic better than your own," he said. "What do they have and not have."
De Vera saw Hunt's reach firsthand at a show that Meguiar's was sponsoring. There was a long line made up primarily of young attendees waiting for as long as two hours for Hunt and company merchandise. Meguiar's was a brand known for appealing to the older hot-rod crowd, not the young drift-car enthusiasts.
When Hunt and de Vera started talking, the former explained that he could deliver that audience to Meguiar's.
"You need to fully understand that you're a salesman, know the demographic, what they're studying, what they're looking for," said Hunt.
Added Downing, "Once I took myself seriously, brands saw that," she said. "I shifted to promoting myself as a business and not a person."