RIGHT: While Gilles Villeneuve was manhandling a Can-Am in 1977, RACER was taking shape in the mind of its founder – who is now back at the helm of the magazine.
The announcement Tuesday that automotive media and marketing veterans Paul Pfanner and Bill Sparks had purchased RACER magazine and Racer.com returned America's leading general interest motorsport magazine to its founding management team after 11 years of majority ownership by Haymarket. In the following interview, Pfanner, the president and CEO of the new company, relates his vision of the next evolution of the company to RACER Executive Editor Andrew Crask.
Could you explain the rationale for your group's re-assuming control of the company now?
The primary motivator is that we believe in RACER as a brand, and we see great potential in all forms of media, both print and digitally. RACER.com was originally launched in 1996 and we've always embraced digital media. The last few years I've been working in short films, many of them about racing and had great success in terms of generating views and manufacturer and sponsor support. So you put all that together under the RACER brand and it's very compelling and very enticing.
Did that experience prompt you to see new ways to develop the magazine?
Well, racing is always about progress. Progress on the track, progress in technology – it's a very competitive environment. What was troubling to me about RACER was that it hadn't evolved – it was like some forms of racing in America in that it was resistant to change. Some of the decisions were driven by the poor economy, minimizing what RACER was – “save your way to prosperity,” if you will. I've never seen that work. RACER has always been about being great.
Racing has gone through a challenging period but it's coming out of it with a bit of energy – there's a bit of fresh optimism. A new IndyCar chassis will hopefully put some energy there this year, I see these exciting new cars in the ALMS, I see Formula 1 coming back to America in a big way – and we're directly involved in helping the brand and visual design of the Grand Prix of America at Port Imperial, so we're definitely enthused about that and Austin.
And I see the success of the film Senna, as well as the fact that Ron Howard is making a film called Rush about Formula 1. I think these are all positive indicators that the audience is still there, and we just need to do a better job of telling them we're still here, and building media properties that are worthy of their devotion.
Obviously the big publishing trend in recent years has been toward digital media. Do you see RACER evolving that way, or do you think there will always be a place for a print version of RACER?
People like print – people want print. When you carry a RACER magazine in your hand it says you're a racer. It says who you are; your iPad doesn't, it's just an iPad. The magazine's a badge of honor. It's a talisman to a culture, and there are magazines that are very successful now that focus on a subject or a mindset. RACER is not about a specific type of racing, but I guarantee you we're about a specific mindset – the racer's mindset. I think that can attract an audience in print. It still has an audience, but it can have a greater audience and can be really important to the culture of motorsport.
RACER is currently available by subscription only. Do you plan to change that?
Yes, as soon as possible we want to put RACER back on newsstand distribution. Again I believe the quality of product and the direction we are going in will make a very compelling product on the newsstand. The quality and page count is going up, we're going to tell stories that are not stories you find online necessarily – you have to buy the magazine.
We're going to have alternative formats that are digital that are not going to be free – they are going to be enhanced versions of the print magazine in digital format. That is the way publishing is going. This brand is going to be accessible through multiple platforms but it's always going to have a core, I believe, that's a great magazine.
At the end of the last century, RACER was chosen as one of the 12 finest magazines in America. I'm very proud of that, and I believe it can be again. But what defines a great magazine won't be simply a print magazine – it will be a brand that is represented across all these delivery systems.
The “In Focus” photo shoots were a prominent part of RACER from its founding back in 1992, and the lack of them in recent years has been a common complaint from readers. Will “In Focus” features be back on a regular basis?
We want to have them in as many issues as possible, but the magazines are going to be themed, and in some cases it may not be appropriate – I hope it is. I personally love “In Focus.” Rick Graves did most of them and I love Rick's work – I've worked with Rick for over 20 years, and he's an artist and a master at this.
The car is a competitor too, you know – there are 66 competitors at the Indianapolis 500, not 33, and the car has a presence and a personality in any form of racing that's as meaningful and emotional as the driver. They complete each other. It's called auto racing, not driver racing.
I think progressive technology is critical. Racecars that are exciting and interesting and involving technically fascinate our readers. And, my experience has been the same: Countless people have complained to me that “In Focus” wasn't part of the magazine anymore. That was a cost decision. Well, it's my decision now that the first issue with us back in control is going to have a Rick Graves “In Focus” in it – and it's of the DeltaWing, and it's awesome. We shot it at a hangar in Sebring the day after the 12 Hours. It's a very interesting car and I know the readers will be fascinated by it.
You last served as president of the company that produces RACER in 2005. How do you think the sport has changed since then?
Well, 2005 was a particularly challenging time because we were still in the depths of the civil war in IndyCar racing, which was demoralizing and debilitating, and it broke my heart. My last act, the last week I worked in this company, was to mischievously change the seating order at the Race of Champions in Paris so that Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George sat together and started talking. I spent the night talking with one of them and a friend who helped me talked with the other, and we begged them to talk and get this over with and stop it. Thankfully, they eventually did. For me, that re-opened all the possibilities I saw when we launched the magazine.
No one foresaw the economic downturn of 2008, but I see the green shoots of potential and promise shooting up everywhere again and I see racing evolving back to what it was – a manifestation of human progress.
I think it's an exciting time. This year you'll have not only the Formula 1 race in Austin, but we'll have FIA World Touring Car and Australian V8 Supercar races, the prospect of DTM coming with NASCAR in the next year. It's an amazing time – a perfect time for RACER.
Do you see the recent trend toward environmental efficiency in automotive engineering helping that process, or running on a sort of parallel track?
Well, if racing embraces the future and progress, it's great for it, and I think RACER is going to take a position that advocates us being a part of the solution rather than the problem. I think racing can accelerate the progress toward sustainable and environmentally friendly mobility. I think car manufacturers are embracing that – you look at Nissan taking the brave decision to align with the DeltaWing project, you look at what Audi is doing, what Toyota is doing…. I think it's inevitable, but racing gets you there faster. If racing leads the way and makes this sexy and desirable and accepted, perhaps it will have done the greatest thing it can for humanity. And we're on the side of that.
You mentioned in the video announcement of your return that you and Jeff Zwart first came up with the idea for RACER in 1977. If you could go back in time to when you were first launching the magazine, what would you like to tell yourself?
Well first of all I'd tell myself that we did it. It's an amazing feeling to have this magazine be 20 years old. I look back to that moment when Jeff and I were talking – we were driving up for a SportsCar magazine shoot; I was the art director and managing editor, and it was very exciting: We were going to rig a Schkee Can-Am car with cameras, and they were also experimenting with the first onboard TV cameras.
I didn't realize we were on the edge of the future in so many ways. Jeff went on to become one of the top commercial film directors in the world, and is quite famous for it, and we had this discussion about how America needed this magazine. I'd already been involved in the launch of a magazine, called Formula, but it was not something that had the potential and the scale and the scope of RACER. We talked about design, about meaning and storytelling, all these things we were going to do in our magazine some day.
So, I'd congratulate that young guy for not giving up and being determined – and for choosing good friends who did the same.
Any other thoughts you'd like to add?
I think the thing that's most important is, I'm home. This is me. I'm with the people I want to be with, and doing what I want to do, when I'm here. Nothing makes me happier than sitting here, looking at everyone working on the 20th anniversary issue of RACER. It's a dream come true. There were many times, especially in the last couple of years, when that seemed impossible, and I'm very grateful to Haymarket for preserving this magazine through what had to have been the worst decade in media and automotive and motorsport business. Their commitment to this company, to keeping it alive, is something I will be grateful for forever, especially to Lee Maniscalco, the CEO of Haymarket Media in New York, for making that call to me and offering me this opportunity to take RACER forward with this team. We're a hybrid now of what was Haymarket and what was RACER, and we're better for it.
Life works out: You have to keep evolving and you have to keep learning, but you've always got to look at what you're going to do next. And the reason I'm really here, is what we're going to do next.
• The next generation of RACER begins with May's 20th Anniversary issue. CLICK HERE to subscribe today at a 30% discount rate!