Near the end of the racing season last fall, Ryan Briscoe was summoned to a meeting with his bosses, Roger Penske and Tim Cindric. The topic was grim and sobering. Sponsorship was going away at the end of the season, and a replacement might be difficult to find. It appeared as if Team Penske would only be able to field two cars in 2011, and Briscoe's was not among them. Unless dollars were found, and found soon, Briscoe would not return to the team in 2011.
“They said, ‘Look, we're not sure if we're going to be able to continue with three cars,' and because of the contract situation, I was the odd man out coming into 2011,” Briscoe recalled. “For a while, it looked like we might be trying to put together a part-time deal. Tim and Roger were very honest with me. They said they weren't sure if they were going to be able to get the money together, but they did assure me that I was going to be the man if they did. And I told them that this is where I wanted to be.”
What followed was nothing short of a full team transformation, a shift in strategy and an adaptation to changing times that proved one thing: What we think of Team Penske – staid, old, conservative Team Penske – is far from reality. The old girl can be formal at times, but she's capable of dancing. In a short period of time, Team Penske went from a team that relied and thrived on one big sponsor and lots of little ones to a team that adapted with the changing business times and assembled a wide array of new sponsors.
Yes, old red and white Team Penske is now multi-color Team Penske, its sales and marketing department piecing together enough deals – modern, customized motorsports partnerships – to put all three Penske cars back on the asphalt full-time for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season. To Briscoe and teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves, it's nothing short of a miracle.
“I'm amazed at how quickly they put together sponsors – but then, seeing how Roger Penske runs his corporations, it's probably not all that surprising,” Power says. “He has the best people underneath him, and they're fully capable of adapting to the conditions. The landscape is changing now, and they have to evolve with it. There's a different sponsorship picture than we had in the past. They had one giant sponsor in the past that covered two cars, and now they have many, many sponsors that cover all three cars. That's going to be the wave of the future. You're going to have to be able to change a car week in and week out. Penske will be able to do that without any issue because they're quick to adapt to changes.”
Here's what's changed: The Philip Morris sponsorship – once bold and basic with its Marlboro brand attached to everything on Penske's team – slowly faded into the background over the years, due mostly to the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, in which the four largest American tobacco companies signed an agreement with attorneys general in 46 states to curtail promotion of smoking.
For a time, the team ran without the Marlboro logo but with the familiar chevron and colors. Last year, the team added Power full time, with backing from Verizon, while Altria Management Group, which owns Philip Morris, began phasing out the “stealth” Marlboro sponsorship. That left Penske with two cars without sponsorship for 2011 – and left Briscoe on the bubble.
“The structure involved in how you adapt to this certainly puts a burden on the organization,” explains Cindric, president of Penske Racing. “How you service these clients is more of a burden than actually selling the sponsorship. It might be just one race for some of the sponsors, so to make that impact for them, we have to make sure we're on our game. It's good in a lot of ways. It makes us better because it pushes us. We can't be complacent.”