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.”They won't have time. Part of the challenge of constantly switching primary sponsors is constantly changing paint schemes. Unlike Penske's NASCAR operation, the IndyCar side doesn't have an abundance of backups and spares. Often, the car that's raced one week is the one that will be raced the following week; thus, painting is everything.
“Everyone on the team would agree it's not ideal to change paint schemes from weekend to weekend,” Briscoe says. “But the team has done an amazing job to be able to do this, just as they've done in adapting to all of this. It was difficult to find sponsorship, so the team had to change strategy. The numbers are smaller, but they've pieced it together. None of it is easy, and it's much more than just painting a car every week. It's a ton of paperwork and contracts and extra time, but it's reassuring to know that the team has gone the extra length to keep three cars on the team.”
Part of that extra length lies with hospitality. Handled in the past exclusively by Philip Morris, Penske's famous hospitality tent, where clients dined on Chilean sea bass and out-of-this-world strawberry cheesecake, is now Team Penske's responsibility – “soup to nuts,” says Cindric. That means a new tent, new catering staff, new equipment, and new responsibilities.
In many ways, the ability to adapt to changes like temporary paint schemes and choice of salad dressing in the hospitality tent receive an assist from Penske's NASCAR team, with which the IndyCar team shares headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.
“The trend toward more but smaller sponsors occurred earlier in NASCAR, so our work there has helped us to understand it and try to stay ahead of it on the IndyCar side,” observes Cindric. “It's certainly done me a lot of good to be exposed to the NASCAR way of doing things. In a lot of ways we needed to change overnight – and continue to change overnight – and seeing the way the NASCAR team does that has been beneficial to us.”
All of which leads back to the track and to what's in front of them: namely, Chip Ganassi Racing. Penske hasn't beaten its archrival for the championship in four years. Power, in particular, was stung by his last-second championship defeat last year to Ganassi's Dario Franchitti. Stung and motivated.
“To me, they're just another team to beat,” Power says. “I don't feel emotionally different toward them or anyone on the track. They've done an unbelievable job in the past few years. They've set the bar pretty high.
“But I love good competition, and right now the Ganassi guys are the competition. I watch how people win championships and take note of what they do – the whole process – as I'm sure all drivers would. I take note of guys who win races and watch how they do it. That's how I look at it. You do get to know who can be friendly and who can make it difficult in the course of a championship. You file that away for future reference.”
Before Power, Briscoe was the one going to the bitter end against Franchitti, who claimed the 2009 IndyCar championship from Ryan in the final race of the season. Not the odd man out anymore, Briscoe is determined to prove his worth.
“If we're not winning, then Ganassi is,” says Briscoe, who began his IndyCar career with Ganassi's team in 2005 before a spectacular crash at Texas left him with injuries that ended his season early. “If they weren't there, we'd probably win all the races. They keep the benchmark high. It's a fierce rivalry.
“I don't take it personally, but it has been frustrating over the past three years to have been right there, so close to winning and Ganassi has come in and taken the championship from us right at the end. We can't let that happen again.”
Leave it to the guy who nearly got left behind to stop the trend. “Ryan doesn't need a lot of motivation,” Cindric says. “I don't see much more motivation. I just see a consistent commitment. He's reflected on how good his 2009 season was and how 2010 didn't meet his expectations. I think you'll see a very focused effort from him in 2011.”
No matter how many times his firesuit changes colors.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the April 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.