The 2020 BlackBook Motorsport Virtual Summit hosted an online discussion titled “A New Vision – IndyCar’s Bright Future” on Thursday afternoon. It featured Jonathan Gibson, executive vice president of Marketing and Business Development at Penske Corp. Robb Holland, Pro Driver and Automotive Journalist, moderated the discussion.
Holland: You guys have managed to take over the series during one of the most challenging seasons that motorsports has ever faced. You guys ended up with a fantastic season. How did you guys manage to pull that off?
Gibson: “First of all, we made the acquisition on January 6. Who would have thought that there would be a global pandemic? You know, it’s been really gratifying to get through the year this year to see where we ended up in running 14 races and to be able to see the championship battle we had at the end. We’ve got a terrific group of people in the leadership at IndyCar. The collaboration we have with our promoters with the race teams. We’re a race team owner as well so we know what it’s like. We need to have healthy promoters, we need to have healthy race teams. That was our focus and will continue to be our focus and provide growth opportunities in the future.”
Holland: It was an awesome season. You guys were one of the first professional sports to really get back going again. You guys kind of had one of the unique moments where you commanded the entire state of sports for a quite period of time.
Gibson: “Yeah, we did. I go back to March 11 and obviously the world was slowly shutting down due to the pandemic. Obviously, if you remember, the Wednesday of that week, the NBA had their issue and obviously shut down the league. We had to make the difficult decision going into St. Pete to do the same. I think that for us, quickly, we saw the collaboration with the team owners, we were having daily calls with every team owner, the collaboration with promoters. We quickly turned our focus number one to the health and safety of our employees, also the health and safety of the employees within the team owners. And then looked ahead to when can we get back to racing? We were able to get started at Texas in June. As you can imagine, there were so many different scenarios you were looking at, right? Everyday, there was a different obstacle or a different scenario that you have to think about. I think it required us to be nimble, it required us to be flexible and I think honestly, in the long term, going to make us better. I’m really proud, not just of IndyCar, but of motorsports really able to shine this year and show what they are able to do in really difficult situations.”
Holland: It speaks a lot to the Penske organization. Obviously, the assets you took over from the Hulman-George family did a great job to bringing IndyCar to where it was when you guys took over. But when you take a look at the Penske organization as a whole, what you guys have achieved in motorsports and the business sense, you guys bring a whole new level of organization that I think was lacking in IndyCar. You have a NASCAR program, an IndyCar program and you own the IndyCar series. How do you manage to make all of that work?
Gibson: “I think it’s a testament to Roger’s leadership. He’s always built an organization that can scale, an organization based on integrity, I think doing things the right way and operating with integrity. This year, we ran 120 races across Team Penske. That includes supercars in Australia, our Acura Team Penske sportscar program, as well as IndyCar and NASCAR. I think the ability to do that–you have relationships with different manufacturers, you have to have the ability to operate with integrity. That’s always been number one within our company. With the IndyCar series, it’s required a lot of focus within our organization. Not just IndyCar, you’ve got Indianapolis Motor Speedway which is one of the iconic sporting institutions globally as well as IMS Properties. That’s added a whole different opportunity to our business this year. You’ve see as we look forward into 2021 that we are exiting Supercars. We’re also exiting the SportsCar world. Next year, we’ll just be running in NASCAR and in IndyCar as well as obviously leading the IndyCar series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
Holland: That’s obviously a bit unfortunate for all of the motorsports fans and Sportscar fans as well. I understand the focus needed to be to run both NASCAR and Indycar. You’ve got to pair things down to make sure those assets get your most attention. How do you leverage Penske’s ongoing relationships with your various partners to help strengthen IndyCar going forward?
Gibson: “I’ve been with Penske now almost 14 years. I started at the racing side and now I work at the corporation level. One of the things I’ve always been amazed by with Roger and company is that his ability to attract companies to be partners and the longevity of those partners. The average tenure of our partners across our ecosystems is about 13 years. Everybody in our industry knows that that’s extremely challenging to do. Number one is our ability to create business-to-business opportunities across our ecosystem. I think, number two is our flexibility with our partners. I think the third one is just collaboration and communication. As we look at this new investment with Indycar, and the investment of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the things we’re still very bullish on is our ability to drive value with new partners to the ecosystem. We’ve already done that. Many of our Penske partners have already joined forces to be partners with Indycar and IMS. I think you’re going to see more of that in the coming months and years. We feel that it is such an attractive platform which is the Indycar series. The talent of drivers we have right now coming through the pipeline. The caliber of teams we have we’re attracting. We’ve got Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR champion coming over next year. We’ve got Scott McLaughlin, a three-time Supercar driver coming in. So the platform that Indycar provides is amazing. We think the commercial value is going to continue to go up.”
Holland: You’re looking at obviously leveraging those partners to increase some of the income stream into IndyCar. I guess where’s that money going? Is it going towards decreasing costs for the teams or fan experience?
Gibson: “I think number one we’re looking at ways to increase our ability to engage with fans and grow the fan base from an Indycar perspective. Number two obviously we’re going to look at costs. Anytime you’re looking at Indycar as a team owner you are looking at ways to reduce costs and make your operation more efficient. But I think the number one thing Robb, is how do we grow our fan engagement? As we announced the acquisition of the Indycar series, one of the things we talked about was how do we continue to invest in the guest experience. There’s technology, there’s innovation, there’s other ways to do it. That’s what we’re going to invest in…making this property easier to access from a fan standpoint and grow the loyal fan base that we already have.”
Holland: How are you bringing in your revenue to your properties like IMS? Obviously, it’s an amazing facility. I heard you guys are doing a lot of upgrades to increase the fan experience. Can you tell me a little bit about those?
Gibson: “We actually announced the acquisition on Nov. 3, 2019. Roger and a few of our executives were down there for the announcement. We walked every piece of the property, looking at the suites, the grandstands, the entire property. It’s 1,000 acres. I remember that day and Roger made the statement that we’re going to make an investment into the fan experience. Everything we do right now going forward is going to be focused on the fan experience. We added 28 digital boards, we have a 20 by 100 board that we put on the back of the Pagoda. We re-did all of the restrooms, the concession stands and other parts of the venue. When fans do come back in masses next year, I think they are going to see a refreshed venue and one that is focused on how do we enhance the guest experience.”
Holland: It looks like next year once the fans some back, it’s going to be almost a whole new venue.
Gibson: “It really is. Just looking at the video it brings to mind a couple of things. I’ve been going there for a long time and I went there as a team owner. Really, I never got to see the entire venue and what it brings from a capacity standpoint. Over 600,000 people come through the venue during the month of May and over 300,000 people on race day. It’s truly amazing. As we look to 2021, we’ve already got tickets for 170,000 people. It shows. you the generational aspect of fan that we have at Indianapolis. We have to make sure we continue to invest in the destination and make it a place that’s easy to access, focused on the guest experience, that we innovate and utilize technology to the best of our ability. I think we’re going to continue to invest in the facility to make sure it is the number one motorsports facility in the world.”
The 2021 IndyCar series kicks off on March 7 with the Streets of St. Petersburg. The open-wheel racing series heads to California for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 18. The Indianapolis 500 will take place on May 30. Then, The Chevrolet Grand Prix in Detroit is scheduled for June 12 – 13.
For more information about the BBM Virtual Summit, go to https://www.blackbookmotorsport.com/events/virtual-summit