Don’t Squander This Golden Opportunity

Believe it or not, we are one-third of the way through the offseason for the Verizon IndyCar series. That also means that two months have passed since Josef Newgarden was crowned as the new champion.

When Newgarden won the 2017 championship, it wasn’t just a sign that he accumulated more points throughout the season than his rivals – it was symbolic of the new guard coming of age.

At the time that Newgarden won the championship, I opined that I was hoping that IndyCar would not make the same mistake with Newgarden as they did with their last American champion – Ryan Hunter-Reay. What was their mistake? They wasted a golden opportunity to showcase a young, good-looking driver to an American audience. Even in the 2012-13 offseason when Hunter-Reay was the reigning champion, I remember thinking that IndyCar was squandering a chance to utilize this marketable American driver to promote the series. By the time the 2013 season started, I’m not sure I saw one ad featuring the new American champion.

But things were different then – a lot different. IndyCar was known as the IZOD IndyCar Series. They had just dumped CEO Randy Bernard and their leadership and marketing programs were in a state of flux.

Fast-forward five years to a whole new world in IndyCar. CEO Mark Miles has been at the helm for several years. He has also made two key hires in Jay Frye and CJ O’Donnell. Although they are leaving after next season, Verizon has been a much better partner than IZOD was after their first big splash. All in all, there seems to be a long-term plan in place as far as marketing and promotion. This is a much stronger IndyCar Series than it was five years ago.

That’s why it’s hard to figure out just how the series plans to take advantage of Josef Newgarden’s marketability. Team Penske and their sponsors have done a good job promoting their new star. They released their video a couple of weeks ago, when Newgarden announced he would be running the No.1 in 2018. It was a clever spot that also featured last year’s champion Simon Pagenaud. Apparently, they have made up after their skirmish at Gateway.

There have been social media campaigns showing Newgarden signing champagne bottles for their various partners, along with a Shell Oil ad featuring Newgarden, Penske’s Joey Logano from NASCAR and Formula One’s Sebastian Vettel. These spots are great for those of us that are die-hard IndyCar fans; but what about the mainstream? That’s how the sport grows.

Obviously Team Penske knows what a star they have in Newgarden and they are taking advantage of the opportunity to market a charismatic American champion to the American public. My hope is that Team Penske sponsor Verizon will create a series of clever ads centered around Newgarden instead of the unfunny bearded millennial they have in their current slate of commercials.

But other than getting Newgarden on SportsCenter the week of clinching his championship and a couple of other spots – what has IndyCar done in the last two months to showcase their newest American star?

I could be way out of the loop. The IndyCar offices across the street from IMS may have been burning the midnight oil for the last two months, coming up with creative ways to get Newgarden’s face into every American household through print, TV and social media. Maybe they plan to launch this blitz just before Christmas. If that’s the case, good for them and I offer my apologies for falsely accusing them for sitting on their collective hands.

But if that is not the case and we’ve already seen all of the exposure that Newgarden is going to get, my question is – why?

Josef Newgarden is a marketer’s dream. He is young, good-looking, well-spoken, funny and oh, by the way – he can drive the heck out of a race car. If IndyCar does nothing this offseason or goes into next season without a full promotion campaign built around Josef Newgarden, they should be tried for marketing malpractice. They will have been guilty of negligence by letting another golden opportunity slip through their fingers.

I understand it was a different era, but how do you think the names of Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt became household names? It wasn’t because all households were tuned into IndyCar races or the Indianapolis 500 – they weren’t. IndyCar races outside of the Indianapolis 500 were rarely carried on the three channels we all got back then. It was because Madison Avenue made household names out of them.

Even as recently as the early nineties, Foyt and Andretti were teaming up with Nigel Mansell in a series of cleverly written Texaco-Havoline commercials, while Foyt was a consistent voice for Craftsman Tools.

If there was ever a natural athlete for television commercials, it’s Josef Newgarden. Most, but not all, enjoy Peyton Manning’s commercials. As he has hawked for mainstream products like MasterCard, Gatorade, Buick, Nationwide and others; he comes across as very funny and a natural. But do you remember his first few commercials as a rookie QB out of Tennessee back in 1998? They were painful to watch. He obviously got some good coaching early on.

With the exception of Fitzgerald Glider Kits, Team Penske has some pretty mainstream sponsors. Shell, Pennzoil, Verizon, HP, MillerCoors, AAA, Chevrolet and Coca-Cola are just some of the household brands that can be found on Team Penske Indy cars. Surely just a couple of those companies could be convinced by the star power that Newgarden brings and build a campaign around him.

But that’s for Team Penske to decide. IndyCar has several household brands that they are partners with. Surely Verizon can come up with a way to showcase the new champion of their series (at least for one more season). Firestone and Sunoco both seem like mainstream products that could benefit from having Newgarden on their commercials.

Maybe I’m overreacting. After all, it’s been only two months. I’m going to be optimistic that things are currently happening behind the scenes. I’m putting my faith in this new IndyCar regime that they are sharp enough to realize what they have in their new champion, and they are not going to squander this opportunity. But if there are no national spots featuring Josef Newgarden by next summer, I’ll know that nothing has really changed in the last five years.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “Don’t Squander This Golden Opportunity”

  1. What exactly does Curt Cavin do now for IndyCar(?) or IMS? Can he help?

    • Curt has a fancy title and collects a paycheck from IMS. Other than that one has to wonder what he is doing. Perhaps our friend Curt can tell us if he reads Oil Pressure.He always had a finger on the pulse of Indy Car when he was with the Star.

  2. George, you’re my friend and I love your writing and you are spot on here! However, I’m about to break my rule about ever critiquing someone’s writing because you made my wife have to Heimlich me at breakfast today! 🤣

    You wrote: “ He has also made two key hires in Jay Frye and CJ O’Donnell. Although they are leaving after next season, ”

    It looked like you were saying they were leaving! I tried to breath Benton Farms Bacon! Then my wife got mad that I was getting worked up over IndyCar! 🤣😱

    You are in so much trouble next time we meet! Lol

    Seriously tho, where are the cool IndyCar videos they used to do during the off-season and post to amuse and draw attention? They had several funny ones with JoNew and Hinch!

  3. agree with all you say today but I like to try to look at Indycar thru the viewpoint of the average sports fan. (the average sports fan knows nothing about Indycar. maybe the 500, but nothing else. )

    one problem is that the Indycar championship doesn’t mean a thing to anyone outside of the sport. the 500 still means something, but not the championship. if folks knew more about the championship, maybe they’d care more about who wins the championship.

    they should make the championship mean something. then maybe it would be easy to promote a champion like Newgarten.

    (And off-topic, Josef really should be rebranded as Joe Newgarten, Or even better–“Tennessee Joe Newgarten.” I think people assume he’s from Austria rather than the U.S.–not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

  4. While I do agree, sometimes it doesn’t help that most Indycar fans can’t get past Tony Kanaan and Helio to move onto the next generation of drivers who are proven winners.

  5. I sent a message to Curt Cavin asking what the plan was to capitalize on JoNew and did not get a reply. Not saying he should have replied to me but I can’t be the only one who asked that question. I have seen nor heard anything from him or IndyCar on the subject. I hope I am proven wrong, but it looks like the same ole, same ole over there.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I don’t doubt that Indycar is making an effort to get Josef more media exposure, but I also expect the results will be disappointing when compared with our hopes (though they should be an improvement over what was done with Hunter-Reay). It takes money to get a driver into mass media, typically other people’s money. Racing drivers who get promoted through advertising generally do it on the sponsor’s dime.

    Oddly enough, the last TV ad from a Penske sponsor that I saw that featured a racing driver was for Fitzgerald Glider Kits, an ad centered around Austin Cindric and his NASCAR truck (though it showed the FGK Indycar at the end too).

  7. Erik Draganov Says:

    Hi George! I am an Indycar fan from Brazil and I do agree with your analysis! Spot on as always! As I live outside US, I do now know the degree of popularity Indycar has in United States. Social media seems to be a good indicator (althought not the only one) and based on the view count in their YouTube Channel, the situation does not look promising. I remember seeing the grandstands completely empty with the exception of few spectators in some of the series oval races as well (don’t remember the venues exaclty). That Penske video you have shared – for instance – only has 665 views. I know it is dangerous to compare Indycar with F1, but Liberty Media (new owner) is doing a fine job trying to get the fans closer to the sport. F1 now seems more informal and friendly, adjectives that particularly for me have always been associated with Indycar. Anyhow, you are not overreacting, I feel exactly the same! Indycar definitely has potential for more!

  8. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’ve been thinking more about this subject before I fired off a comment. A few long-time, wide-angle thoughts that always seem a bit problematic when it comes to Indycar and marketing, especially when considering attempts to catch a wider audience than the (appx) 500k globally that follow the sport fervently.

    1. Identity: What is the essence of Indycar and its mission? Why does it exist?

    2. Market: Until they can answer Q1 with enthusiasm and certainty, they can’t possibly craft a message to people who aren’t current consumers and all else are just exercises in value-marketing and cost-controls. When you have the essence of what Indycar is, they should be able to then pursue the answers to basic marketing questions:
    – What is its primary marketing goal?
    – To Whom should it be directed? To expand the fanbase(/TV ratings/global consumers) two-fold? Five- or ten-fold? To maintain connection to existing/dedicated consumers? It would seem to be a massive (expensive) undertaking to try to gain even double the regular followers from mere media/advertising exposure even with the help of current partners.
    – How does Indycar achieve those marketing goals?
    – What is the proposed cost to achieve the goals and how will it be borne?

    I as much as anyone want to see Indycar grow because I am a fan and have enjoyed the sport for decades, but I also don’t see a clearly-stated reason for existing other than to maintain the Indy 500 event/IMS and to provide 15 other annual sporting events to places friendly/that demand the sport.

    Does Indycar need to grow to survive?

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