PFANNER: A silent spring

Image by IndyCar

PFANNER: A silent spring

Insights & Analysis

PFANNER: A silent spring

By

These words began to flow onto the screen of my laptop at 4:47 a.m. Pacific, just one week into the COVID-19 disruption of life here and abroad. In an alternative reality I would have been rolling into the Sebring paddock at that moment. But now, rather than taking in the exotic sights and sounds of the IMSA and WEC weekend, I am instead taking stock of what lies ahead for the sport that has defined my existence. For the first time in memory I am now faced with a silent spring without the roar of racing engines that have been the soundtrack for my life’s long journey.

Certainly I’m not alone in my self-reflection at this early hour. Businesses large and small are now faced with the reality that the vibrant economy and optimistic consumer sentiment of just one month ago has been swept away in a tsunami of uncertainty and fear. For those of us who love and live racing, uncertainty and fear are constant traveling companions that we have learned to embrace and overcome to our advantage.

Sheltering in place and working from home is becoming our new normal, but doubt and fear should not dominate our sprits. The resulting widespread suspension of sports and live entertainment events to support social distancing is an inarguably wise choice given the alternative. As racers, we look to data to enhance performance, and the data tells us that will absolutely save lives and flatten the curve predicting the trajectory of this pandemic.

Many of us have experienced the five stages of grief during the past seven days, but the vast majority of us are not infected by this virus so we should count ourselves among the fortunate.

To help find perspective in this disorienting time, I like to think of the past week as a five-speed gearbox. If you look at the behavior of racing organizations, you will see which gear they are currently in. First is shock and denial that, in some cases, initially took the form of numbed disbelief and the fleeting vision of televised races being held in front of empty grandstands. Second is anger at what has been lost with the cancelation or postponement of races. Third is the bargaining phase, because we want life to return to the way it once was. Fourth is depression as the consequences of this unprecedented disruption become more real by the day. Fifth is acceptance, and this is most important because only then does it become possible to move forward with momentum and the positive spirit needed to create the outcomes desired.

Racing is compelling to us because we (usually) know the date and time the race will start and what the distance or length of time the competition will be. As a result, the people responsible for the stewardship of our sport are now making longer-view decisions to postpone major events such the 24 Hours of Le Mans to much later times of year, which is gives us a hint of what will soon follow.

Usually Roger Penske’s dynamic mind does not spend much time moving through the first four phases (or gears) of grief but his understandable desire to launch the Penske era at IMS with the Indy 500 running on its traditional date undoubtedly made this a much more emotional conundrum for he and his talented team at Penske Entertainment. With yesterday’s Le Mans announcement and today’s cancellation of the 2020 Monaco GP, Roger is likely coming to the realization he must accept the bad hand that fate has dealt him as he prepares to hold the first Indy 500 under his stewardship.

But racing teaches us that in chaos often lies unique opportunity. In the context of fast-changing circumstances, the 104th running of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing now potentially takes on even more meaning should it be moved outside of its traditional place in the month of May. As Marshall Pruett points out in his column today, the sports scheduling overlords at NBC are key to what comes next for IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA.

From where I sit in isolation on this unusual Thursday, a new date and a compressed schedule for the running of 2020 Indianapolis 500 might not be such an unwelcome development in the context of this fluid situation. If the Indy 500 is indeed moved to later in the year, I am confident it will have the gravitas and emotional horsepower to define a joyous moment when the entire racing world awakens from this nightmare. It could well end up being one of the greatest days in the heroic history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A rescheduled Indy 500 could become a rallying point for a recovering sport. Image by Levitt/LAT

Taking it a step or two further, could this finally be the opportunity to have the IndyCar/NASCAR double-header that many have long hoped for? Will this be a chance to add an IMSA race to the Indy 500 festivities to make up for the loss of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach? After the events of the past week, I now realize that anything is possible.

It is rapidly becoming clear that the 2020 racing season will forever be remembered for its silent spring. However, it is my hope that it will also be celebrated for its triumphant roaring summer return and more meaningful high-intensity championship season that runs into late fall — as it once did for nearly all major racing series.

In our lifetimes, we have not seen anything quite like what we are experiencing now. However, those of us with long memories can look back on turbulent periods in our history, and find hope in our collective resilience and will to succeed.

I began this journey as a teenager with FORMULA magazine that launched during the first energy crisis and resultant global recession of 1973/1974. The original era of this company that was once known as Pfanner Communications began in the midst of the second energy crisis and recession of 1979 and 1980 as the USAC/CART split wore on.

RACER magazine debuted just a few weeks before the L.A. riots in 1992 after a 12-month launch delay due to the first Gulf War. RACER.com went live in May 1997 at the height of the CART/IRL split, which inflicted financial damage that led to us eventually selling the majority of this company to Haymarket Media in 2001. So began the RACER 2.0 era only a month before the original dot com bubble burst and nine months before the tragedy of 9/11.

Five years later, at 5:35 p.m. on the evening of December 16, 2005, I left the company I founded and started a new journey with a reborn Pfanner Communications in the predawn hours of Monday, December 19, 2005. Our branding and creative services agency worked with the American Le Mans Series, The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, International Speedway Corporation, Swift Engineering, the Jim Russell Racing School and a young company called iRacing. It is interesting to see how each company has evolved since then. My point in sharing all this is that I believe that life works with commitment and racing is ultimately about managing change to the best outcome given the circumstances you encounter.

It came to pass that on this same date in 2012, I walked back though the front door of RACER HQ with my longtime colleague and founding publisher, Bill Sparks to reacquire this company in partnership with original RACER-era investors Rob and Chris Dyson just as the recession began to loosen its grim grip on the global economy.

So began the RACER 3.0 era, and we’re fortunate that Editor-in-Chief Laurence Foster was still at the helm of RACER and Andrew Crask was still manning RACER.com, while Philip Royle was thankfully editor of SportsCar magazine which our company has proudly published since January 1984. I am grateful for all the former RACER staff who have rejoined us, and also for the talented teammates we have attracted along the way – especially correspondents Robin Miller, Marshall Pruett, Kelly Crandall, Chris Medland, Stephen Kilbey, Richard James, Eric Johnson, and Marty Fiolka as well as our ace RACER.com editor Mark Glendenning, and also Steve Nickless, who returned to the RACER fold last year.

The remarkable growth we have seen since that fateful day has been gratifying despite the sea change we’ve experienced in the media landscape. Today our team is working from home, like many of you visiting RACER.com, but we have much more in common than that. We never forget that this business exists to express the passion and excitement we all share for racing. You are our reason for being, so thank you to the more than 32,000 readers of RACER magazine, along with the 820,539 unique visitors who’ve come to RACER.com during these past 31 days.

Since this date in 2012, Pfanner Communications evolved to become the Racer Studio agency and since last July, our company now includes Vintage Motorsport magazine and VintageMotorsport.com led by Editor D. Randy Riggs and his great team of VM newsletter editors Cyndi and Scott Paceley along with webmaster Nick Lish.

I’ll close with a sincere thank you to our loyal advertisers and sanctioning body partners. In recent days we have been deeply moved by your kind outreaches and continued support. Together we will endure this silent spring and be there together to celebrate the legends of the fall.

IndyCar Debrief

More RACER