A Friend To IndyCar Moves On

The name Gillian Zucker probably doesn’t resonate with the casual racing fan. Hard-core fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series might have a hard time placing her name. Even those that follow the business side of the sport, who know the names of Hulman, George, Belskus, Bernard and Miles might pause when her name is mentioned. That’s a shame, because she has been a very good friend to IndyCar over the years.

So, just exactly who is Gillian Zucker, you might be asking? Since 2005, Zucker has been the President of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Not only that, she has been one of the more powerful forces within International Speedway Corporation (ISC) – the track-owning sister company of NASCAR.

As far as ISC goes, Gillian Zucker was probably IndyCar’s biggest ally within the NASCAR-owned company. She fully believed that IndyCar could work at the two-mile oval that is more than an hour due-east of downtown LA. Even after Mark Miles gave the edict that IndyCar was still dead set on finishing the season by Labor Day weekend, Zucker believed enough in the idea that IndyCar could make it in Southern California, that she moved to a June date rather than bailing on the struggling open-wheel series.

Unfortunately, we must now use the past-tense when referring to Zucker’s reign at Fontana. Last week, she took on the role as President of Business Operations of the LA Clippers. Getting on new owner Steve Balmer’s payroll is probably not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of. Balmer is the former CEO of Microsoft and ranks thirty-second in the Forbes 400. His personal wealth is estimated at over $20 Billion – that’s Billion with a “B”.

This is obviously a very good move for Zucker, but probably at the expense of IndyCar. I always had the idea that her relationship with IndyCar probably did not set well with her bosses at ISC, but her clout within the company gave her the power to move forward in trying to make the open-wheel series work. I’ve noticed that her peer at Michigan, Roger Curtis, proclaims to be an open-wheel fan, but has not been willing to take the same financial risk at his track as Zucker did with hers.

Gillian Zucker is not new to sports marketing. Prior to her going to Fontana in 2005, she had stints at Kansas Speedway and Daytona after joining ISC in 1998. Before that, she served many years in professional baseball; most recently with the Durham Bulls.

The general consensus is that this move will do harm to IndyCar’s future at Fontana. IndyCar has lost a vital ally at one of the few oval tracks that has welcomed them in recent years. Does this mean that 2015 is the last year that the Verizon IndyCar Series will visit Auto Club Speedway? Not necessarily, but it doesn’t help their chances for a return in 2016 either.

Much depends on who will be named to replace Zucker, and how well Southern California fans respond to a June date at a track that is quite a hike from most LA area attractions. But this much I know – the Verizon IndyCar Series continues to encounter major roadblocks along the way as they try to re-establish themselves in the American sports landscape. Unlike some, this one is not of their making.

Good luck to Gillian Zucker. She has obviously made a name for herself in the fickle arena of sports business. IndyCar has lost a rare thing – someone who was a friend to IndyCar. We wish her well in her new career with the Clippers.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “A Friend To IndyCar Moves On”

  1. “The general consensus is that this move will do harm to IndyCar’s future at Fontana.”

    Nope. It’s the people currently running Indycar that are doing that. Too bad she did not move to Indycar management. I think they could use her.

  2. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Sayonara Fontana.

    Only thing that may save that race in the eyes of ISC is selling (not giving away) 50k tickets while spending a pittance on promotion. I’m afraid that’s a big notagonnahappen.

    Merely opening the ticket windows and running a few TV/radio spots the week prior won’t get it done.

    I still contend they (ISC/Frances) have absolutely zero to gain by hosting Indycar at ISC tracks. Without an advocate inside the castle, Indycar stands little chance.

  3. The importance of the track manger/director/president cannot be underestimated. We have another who has been a terrific partner through the years with Eddie Gossage at TMS. I know that there is an undercurrent of dismay with Eddie and I don’t get it. The series should embrace this relationship for as long as it can.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      I’m lukewarm on Eddie although he promotes races like nobody else.

      Sometimes Eddie doesn’t help his own cause when words leak out of his pie hole, damaging relationships, seemingly only in the name of tactical negotiation.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    It is certainly no stretch to think that Zucker’s move (and, as much as that, the constant date changes) will spell doom for Indycar at Fontana beyond 2016, but I think the race’s future has a fighting chance for a couple of reasons.

    1. It was announced back in September that MAVTV/Lucas Oil had signed a two contract to continue as the race’s title sponsor, covering races in 2015 and 2016. This is no ironclad guarantee, as Billy Gibbons once said, “paper can be ripped, like your face”, and I know that Mike Lanigan had contracts with both sponsors and Indycar to run the Houston race in 2015 and beyond. It is, however, evidence that at least one party with money in the event expects it to continue beyond next season.

    2. Without Indycar, Fontana would be in an abnormal (but not totally unique) position among ISC tracks, having only 1 major racing event weekend. This does not mean that the track cannot make money without Indycar, but multiple major events ad value to season ticket packages, and to a pair of high margin money-makers, suites and track signage/sponsorships.

  5. As long as Fontana keeps its sponsors the race will continue there. The IndyCar brand’s inability to attract people to race tracks outside greater Indianapolis is the biggest threat to IndyCar. I still don’t buy the “if the track promoted it more, everything would be great” argument. NASCAR and ISC became what they are today from walking away from deals that have no ROI. Non-sponsored IndyCar races have no ROI. If the track poured a million into promoting they’d never see return on that million because the fan base outside Indianapolis is tiny and IndyCar hasn’t be able to build it.

  6. Perhaps your California readers have gotten to know Ms Zucker. All I know is what was printed here and the good things that Curt Cavin has printed about her over the years. I wish her well.

    Certainly IndyCar did not make her life easy with regard to race dates.

    • Gillian Zucker is the real thing and IndyCar will miss her advocacy at Fontana. She and her staff work hard to publicize the race weekend. The track took a huge loss at this year’s event. June is Southern California may work well. I hope the race stays on the schedule past 2016.

  7. I met Ms. Zucker at Auto Club and came away very impressed.

    On a second note, ISC is publically traded. They have an obligation to their shareholders first and foremost, not NASCAR. How does ISC make money? The obvious answer is by holding profitable events at their track. Can IndyCar races be profitable? The answer may be no, but my gut tells me ISC doesn’t care for their shareholders first, they act for the benefit of NASCAR.

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