Don’t Blame Roger Penske
Roger Penske probably doesn’t have time to shop for Christmas. Apparently, he has been very busy trying to replace the funding that dried up when the Marlboro money started dwindling over the last few years. What we have seen in the past week is the evidence of his hard work, as Team Penske has had almost daily announcements of new sponsorship packages for his three-car team in 2011 and beyond.
First, Meijer was announced as an associate sponsor for all three cars. Then Shell/Pennzoil was confirmed as an associate sponsor as well as the primary sponsor for Helio Castroneves at the Indianapolis 500. Next came, what I consider, the biggest bombshell when it was announced that IZOD was joining Team Penske and would serve as the primary sponsor for Ryan Briscoe at next year’s Indy 500. Tuesday brought another announcement when the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA) revealed they would sponsor Helio’s car at Long Beach and the Texas Twins.
The IndyCar blogosphere has come out of its winter slumber with these announcements. I’ve read some interesting assessments of these proceedings. It is no secret that I have been a lifelong fan of Team Penske. I consider Roger Penske to be one of the most fascinating men around. His success is no accident. But I find myself pulled in different directions regarding the Penske sponsorship announcements.
On one hand, I’m happy to see my favorite team sign more sponsors. On the other hand, it would be good to see some new and different sponsors come into the series. I was not a fan of last year’s generic paint scheme on the Castroneves and Briscoe cars that appeared to carry no primary sponsorship. Yes, we know that they were still funded by Altria (parent company of Philip Morris USA) to some extent, but to an outsider – it looked like they were driving billboards for rent. Although the Penske cars did not carry the words “Marlboro” anywhere for the past few years, the familiar day-glo chevron paint scheme told everyone that these were still the Marlboro cars. That changed in 2010, and the image of the team suffered, as it appeared they were without sponsors, except for Will Power in the Verizon car.
Now that the Marlboro money has mostly gone away, it looks like companies are knocking each other out of the way to get to Penske’s door. While that’s good for Team Penske, it’s a red flag for the rest of the IZOD IndyCar Series. The problem is, most of these are not new sponsors to the series – they’re just new sponsors for Team Penske.
Unlike some bloggers I’ve read, I don’t necessarily have a problem with Penske courting (some say poaching) other team’s sponsors. It doesn’t really matter whether these companies sought out Team Penske or the other way around. A business opportunity was there and both parties seized the moment. Some will point to my admitted allegiance to Team Penske as a reason for this viewpoint, but I can honestly say that I would have the same stance had it been Chip Ganassi making all of the announcements over the past week.
These sponsors may have migrated to Penske, but someone else originally brought them to the series. Could anything have been done to keep them? The team that appears to suffer the most in these announcements is Andretti Autosport. Is it coincidence or bad luck that two more of their sponsors have followed 7-Eleven and abandoned the Andretti ship? Something must be happening to make all three jump. You can’t blame it on the economy. 7-Eleven may have been a cost-cutting move, but IZOD and Meijer both left to probably spend even more money.
These are still tough economic times. In 2003 and 2004, Michael Andretti looked like a marketing whiz. He had built an impressive portfolio of sponsors that seemed to be clamoring for space on any of his four cars. His marketing prowess appeared to be effortless – maybe it was. In 2010, it takes a lot more effort to land or maintain a sponsor. Teams can’t put forth the effort they did in 2003 and expect to maintain their funding. Times have changed. The expectations of sponsors have changed. The attitudes of the teams and team owners must change.
After seeing Penske cars all keeping the same consistent Marlboro livery for the past twenty years, it was hard to get used to seeing them in black & white this past season. It will be even harder in 2011, as their appearances will change from week to week. Last night, Curt Cavin was lamenting that a fan in Toronto might see Helio’s car in the Shell/Pennzoil scheme at the Indianapolis 500, then have it look completely different when the series comes to their town later that summer. How is that any different than the different paint schemes that Target Chip Ganassi has been running for years? The lime-green Tom Tom car doesn’t look much like the Target car that won the Indy 500 this year.
I don’t care for it either. I’ve always lived with the mantra that “change is bad”. But in this case, change is necessary. It’s the economic climate we live in. I believe Roger Penske put a lot of stock in building the Penske brand by having his cars presented week after week, year after year in the same meticulous manner and fashion. But when that was no longer feasibly possible, he changed course. Jack Roush made this popular in NASCAR in the early part of the last decade. NASCAR invented everything else; they might as well take credit for this too.
So instead of taking the popular route and making Roger Penske the villain, I will put this back on the other teams and tell them to get busy and do something different. Get creative. If you can’t get creative, copy what Penske did. Do whatever it takes to make something happen. Dreyer & Reinbold has been doing this for the past few years and it had helped keep them afloat. If the most successful team in the history of open-wheel racing is forced to forego the one big yearlong sponsor in favor of a sponsor focusing on a few key races – it might be a sign that this is the way to go. Roger Penske didn’t get where he is by making stupid business decisions.
Before my most recent career move, I had spent more than twenty-five years in sales. Over time, I had much better success while targeting the small to medium sized company instead of trying to hit the home run with the Wal-Marts of the world. Sure, you have to dream big and aim high – but my greatest successes came with pulling in steady business from the smaller companies.
This is no longer 2003. Companies are no longer going to hand over a truckload of money just because a team has a well-known name from the past. It’s time for some teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series to realize that doing things the way they’ve always done them will not suddenly bring different and better results. What do they call that way of thinking?