The disruptions caused by current shutdowns reach into every corner of the racing industry. RACER.com is sharing stories of how different entities in the sport are tackling these unprecedented challenges in a special series called The Lockdown Diaries.
“I sit back in situations like these and ask, ‘What Roger Penske would do?” Jim Leo said.
The owner of PitFit, the Indianapolis-based gym that caters to most of the NTT IndyCar Series drivers, has The Captain to thank for assembling a detailed action plan to implement in the face of adversity brought with the COVID-19 virus.
“Well, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a big surprise for us,” he told RACER. “I used to work for Roger Penske a long time ago, for a long time, and I guess one of the biggest things that I learned is to be prepared for everything. Then, if you’re going to take measures for something, you need to go to levels where people are basically blown out of the water.
“That’s how it always was with Roger. And it is now, obviously. But we were aware of the virus weeks ago, and there was some talk and some grumbling about how it might take shape. So we started having staff meetings about precautionary measures, and we went out and instantly ordered more antibacterial wipes and sprays things like that. While we’re super clean as it is, we stepped that up even further. Then the week of St. Petersburg, we had two meetings with the staff to be prepared for a national shutdown.”
Once IndyCar and Green Savoree Race Promotions cancelled St. Petersburg, Leo recognized sweeping changes would be coming to the following races.
“We had a round table text meeting with all of our IndyCar drivers, because there were some concerns,” he said. “We had a group conference call on Sunday with a nurse from St. Vincent in the group to answer every single question, to explain all of our precautionary measures. At the time, we weren’t shut down yet. So, our biggest concern was we wanted to give a sense of calm to your customers and show them that you are taking this very seriously, far more than anybody else.
“And that meeting that we had with them, we answered a ton of facility questions. But having a nurse on the call, she answered a ton of questions that drivers just didn’t know. The stuff you’d read about, and ‘What about this?’ Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball have new babies, and there were some questions about that.
“So they were very grateful and thanked us for everything in that respect. We basically had it set up ready to go. We sanitized everything Sunday night. Our staff was in the gym, bleaching down, wiping down everything to be ready for them to come in and continue training Monday morning after St. Pete.”
Drivers generate the majority of PitFit’s income, which made the company’s reaction to the coronavirus rather critical if it wanted to retain its key clients.
“We have a semi-private membership program that runs from 6:00 in the morning till 8:30, and then it starts again at 11:30 for the rest of the day, but between 8:30 and 11:30 is when our elite drivers come in,” Leo said. “So, no one’s supposed to come in. No one’s allowed to come in and use the gym at that time. These guys have privacy, our entire staff is out there. We canceled the morning session. So every single night the place would be disinfected, scrubbed down, and the first people to use the gym every day would be our drivers. That was our plan.”
With the Center for Disease Control’s call for gatherings of 10 or fewer people, and social distancing in mind, Leo and his staff made a quick adjustment to serve PitFit’s contact-averse clientele prior to the new shelter-in-home decree from March 25-April 7.
“One of the things that I’ve always done is stashed additional pieces of equipment away,” he said. “We don’t have one of anything, we have multiple pieces of everything. We have four ski ergometers, and four rowers, and 60 kettlebells, and all of these things so that we can accommodate bigger groups of people in the event that somebody needs to borrow something. Our backup plan was, for not just our drivers but our members, is to give them the opportunity to take anything they wanted home with them.
“So, in the event something like this were to happen, it was fairly simple to transition because we just modified the programs so that they could do them at home. And we didn’t skip a beat. People came in, Alex Rossi took a skier, Dalton Kellett took a rower. Charlie Kimball took a bunch of kettlebells, Pippa Mann came in and took some kettlebells. So we just moved everything to their home environment.”
Leo’s company, like many fitness businesses, has an online training system that, in the coronavirus era, has made it easy to convert in-person sessions to home-based efforts.
“We have an online platform that is the same app that we use with everybody,” he said. “Everybody from James Hinchcliffe to a 12-year-old karting driver in Australia, and every driver’s workout is on this platform. You can’t see everybody else’s, but with exactly what you’re supposed to do over four… now 500 videos of every single exercise that we ever come up with, it’s all on there.”
Leo has also been proactive in reducing Pitfit’s overhead to weather a long virus-related disruption.
“We’ve already negotiated; I had a meeting with the owners of the property we rent about the current situation,” he said. “Last Tuesday, they basically shut down certain types of businesses in Indianapolis for a seven-day period. Unfortunately, it lumped us into the supercenter fitness centers with 5,000 members, where you’re going to have large gatherings. We seldom would have 10 people in our facility training at one time anyway. We really don’t fall into that category, but what can you do?
“So I had talked to our owners of our property weeks ago about this and let them know that if this happened, this is the scenario, we’ll extend our lease, but we’re going to need potentially up to six months of paying abbreviated lease payments in order to do this. We do run a lean staff, but like I said, we run an online system that is a large chunk of our revenue. So that will maintain for a while. But a lot of our online clients, unfortunately, their training facilities have also shut down. So I think we’re good for a few months.
“If we were a facility that was dependent on the general population, large quantities, lower pricing like a Planet Fitness or something, we’d be in a lot of trouble. We’re not. Our memberships are not inexpensive, because we provide a specific service. We’ll figure this out. Hopefully, there’s some sort of government stimulus or something that’ll help out, but we run lean and always have. We don’t make a ton of money. It’s not our mission is to make a lot of money. Our mission is to keep every driver as safe as possible, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
A person’s true nature is often revealed in times of stress and strife. Leo says the threat of the coronavirus has helped him to understand the place PitFit holds for some of his clients.
“It was suggested by one of the drivers that we close the facility for just the drivers, and everybody basically agreed to pay more money to offset our losses. We didn’t even ask for that,” he added. “I told them that it was appreciated, but that’s why we had that meeting, because I said, ‘Even if it’s driver’s-only, that’s not going to prevent you from getting this virus.’
“But that was a really nice gesture for the people in the call. Everyone agreed to that. That wouldn’t have been a good business decision on our part unless someone said they were going to leave, but nobody was. But that was a really nice gesture by the drivers to let us know how much they need us to be here for them.”