IndyCar-Verizon pact should be viewed with cautious optimism

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Sponsor activation is a beautiful thing in motorsports.

NASCAR fans see it every single day. When they’re printing up documents at Kinko’s, they see Denny Hamlin’s race car.

When they walk into a convenience store, they step on a floor sticker with a smiling, Skittles-hawking Kyle Busch.

When they’re pulling into a parking lot for a sports bar, they see signs with Kevin Harvick pushing $2.50 pints of Budweiser for Happy Hour.

And of course, when they’re in a Sprint shop to upgrade their phone, they see signs promoting the company’s title sponsorship of America’s most popular motorsport.

IndyCar fans on the other hand don’t see major sponsors beckoning to them. Beyond the Racing Capitol of the World (and NBCSN broadcasts, of course), these instances get scarce: A wall sign in a Target here, a stray Ryan Hunter-Reay/Sun Drop sticker there.

Your eyes are all you need to recognize the gap between the two series in the public consciousness.

Enter Verizon, which got into NASCAR in 2009 via its acquisition of Alltel but had a challenging time promoting itself in the sport thanks to its aforementioned association with Sprint.

In 2010, Verizon got involved full-time with IndyCar through a primary sponsorship deal with Team Penske and at the end of that year, it shifted its entire motorsports attention from NASCAR to North America’s top open-wheel series.

The telecommunications giant has become one of IndyCar’s biggest partners, both in sponsorship and technology aspects. Now they’re stepping up to the plate as IndyCar’s new title sponsor.

“I think of this day as a game-changer for IndyCar, for the series, for our fans, for the teams, for the drivers,” Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles said this morning in a teleconference.

“In a real sense, I think it represents a kind of confirmation of strategies that we’ve put in place and where we intend to take the sport. It is the beginning of the next phase of IndyCar’s growth.”

Obviously, optimism is rather high about this partnership and you can’t blame IndyCar for that.

IZOD may have made some nice apparel for us race fans who didn’t dare to pull out a shirt two-thirds covered by a driver’s face for a barbecue. But Verizon is close to ubiquitous in our society these days.

Millions of people use their phones and services. They clearly know how to promote their products. But most important of all, the company’s been in the series for a while now.

They’re not going into this blind or with some faint idea of what to expect. They haven’t been scared off by its assorted issues of TV ratings, live attendance, and occasional bouts of political infighting.

They actually seem interested in building the sport.

“We’ve had a great relationship as a partner and with [Team Penske], so when we looked at this, it just became the right time for Verizon to step up in this position,” said Verizon vice president of marketing Brian Angiolet.

“We have been evolving our brand from a mobile and wireless-centric company into more of a technology company. When you think about the role that technology plays in IndyCar, it just seemed like a great match…It’s a perfect match at a perfect time.”

But didn’t we think IZOD was interested too?

To be fair, the apparel brand was doing its part to activate its IndyCar sponsorship during the early stages of its deal with the series, which started in 2010.

But a management change at IZOD’s parent company that occurred midway through the deal resulted in a noticeable pullback of promotion for IndyCar, both on TV and elsewhere.

Last fall, IZOD left a year early, joining a list of ultimately ineffective title sponsors for the series that includes defunct search engine Northern Light and auto parts retailer Pep Boys.

Time will tell if Verizon can be IndyCar’s answer to what R.J. Reynolds and its Winston cigarettes brand did for NASCAR, or if it too winds up on that unenviable list.

For his part, Miles is keeping his eyes on the road ahead.

“I don’t think much about the past, to be frank,” he said. “I’m thinking about how we’re going to take the sport forward. I’ve never spent a second thinking about comparing this situation to prior ones, because I’m so completely convinced about how this partnership will make sense.

“They see the sport the way that we do: It is a compelling, exciting sport that is perfect as the sport to apply technology to make it more compelling to fans…We have complete confidence that this is going to be a home run for IndyCar.”

Fair enough. But Miles is talking about potential here. And while potential is one thing, results are another.

Again, IndyCar has a right to be optimistic. But for the rest of us, that optimism needs to be cautious.

IndyCar followers have been wanting results in regards to promotion for years now. They understood that reunification of the sport in 2008 wasn’t going to be the magic bullet, but seven years after, they’re tired of seeing a tremendous racing product get ignored.

IndyCar may be based in Indiana and Verizon may be based outside New York City. But both should consider making themselves believe that everybody waiting on their big push for the sport is living in Missouri.

Because those people are going to look at this announcement, remember the past failures, and then simply say, “Show me.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500