PFANNER: Farewelling the man who changed my life, and RACER

PFANNER: Farewelling the man who changed my life, and RACER

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PFANNER: Farewelling the man who changed my life, and RACER

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His eyes flashed with passion and warmth as we talked about family, friends and racing. This was one of many special moments I’d enjoyed with a man whom I’d long admired and looked to for advice and inspiration during my five decades of immersion in the world of racing. I often came away from these magical encounters with Rod Campbell filled with newfound confidence and a renewed resolve to push ahead regardless of the challenges. But this encounter with Rod was different than anything previous. He was saying goodbye.

Two days earlier, my battered iPhone lit up as I walked into my home on a Friday evening at the end of a disorienting week at RACER HQ. The world and auto racing was grinding to a halt as a result of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic. At a moment I should have been in St. Petersburg for the NTT IndyCar Series season-opener, I was instead standing in my kitchen as Townsend Bell was calling out of the blue.

After some initial banter about the chaotic events of the past week, we paused as I sensed that Townsend’s tone was oddly somber. He then revealed the reason for the call. Townsend is married to Rod Campbell’s daughter, Heather and in a halting voice he shared that his father-in-law was in hospice. Townsend knew how much Rod and I respected each other, and he suggested that I reach out soon to the Silver Fox to hopefully share a moment together before it was no longer possible.

This was a gut punch, because I was in awe of Rod whenever I was fortunate enough to enjoy a moment with him. Positive energy flowed effortlessly from this man who was the ultimate insider. From Formula 1 to IndyCar to NASCAR to IMSA to SCCA and NHRA, Rod and his PR and marketing firm, Campbell and Company served the Ford Motor Company’s dynamic global performance and racing initiatives. From humble beginnings in Canada, Rod used his winning personality, quick mind and boundless enthusiasm to become a key behind-the-scenes influencer and power broker whose presence was felt during the glory days of the SCCA Can-Am and F5000 in the 1960s and 1970s before he moved into the intoxicating world of Formula 1 that he loved most of all.

Over six decades, Rod influenced the global racing and the automotive worlds through his optimistic vision, intuitive creativity and supernatural gifts of hypnotic persuasion and relationship fire-walking. Rod also had an uncanny eye for spotting talent, and a divine touch in mentoring those lucky enough to be in his orbit.

Campbell’s ties to racing spanned decades. Here, he’s pictured in announcer mode in 1964. Image courtesy of Pete Lyons

It took me nearly 36 hours to find the courage to send a text to Rod asking if he felt up for a call. On a Sunday that should have been the joyous first race day of the 2020 Formula 1 and IndyCar seasons, I was now unexpectedly at a family dinner trying to find comfort with those dearest to me ahead of the gathering storm of tragedy and social disruption that would soon engulf our world.

As I stood by the warmth of my brother-in-law’s new BBQ, my iPhone buzzed to life with a FaceTime call from Rod. My instinctive excitement quickly gave way to a rush of raw emotion as I pushed the button to see Rod’s familiar face and trademark round eyeglasses. Rod then began to say goodbye in a way only he could. He dryly and matter-of-factly laid out his untreatable medical issues and his looming fate with a shrug and a dose of dark humor.

Rod’s love for his beautiful family and appreciation for his incredible and improbable life dominated the conversation, but he also wanted me to know that he was proud of me and of our RACER team. He complimented our RACER editors and correspondents for their tireless coverage of the traumatic events of the past week, and joked that in light of the madness, it might actually be a good time for him to check out. I fought to hold it together as I told him how much he had meant to me. In our final moments of conversation I told Rod that this was the first time he’d ever disappointed me, saying, “I thought you were immortal”. Rod flashed his wry smile and said, “I share your disappointment, Paul”.

There was no hiding my emotions after our call, and I soon followed up with a text to Rod letting him know how grateful I was for his friendship. Many days later, and not long before he passed, I received a final text from him that simply said “thank you”.

My memories of Rod span five decades, and his adventures and accomplishments across the full spectrum of motorsports are legend in the automotive and PR industries. I will leave the telling of some of these amazing tales to Rod’s long-time colleague and good friend Kevin Kennedy, who carries forward his legacy at the renamed Campbell Marketing & Communications under new ownership that includes him. This is how it should be, because in all my years of knowing Rod, he never sought the credit but instead pointed to his colleagues as the reason for his many successes. He repeatedly reminded me that great people make great companies, and when I look at those who worked with Rod along the way, I see so many remarkable people who grew to lead and shape our sport and the automotive business for the better.

But I will share one story about Rod and his profound influence on my life. In the spring of 1998 RACER Communications, (as we were then known) was growing in every area. RACER magazine’s circulation rivaled that of Autosport magazine in the UK, and RACER.com was an early player in the digital race. Our Pfanner Communications Special Projects team was working with Honda, Toyota, GM, Porsche, Penske Motorsports, CART, Skip Barber and also the SCCA via our SportsCar magazine publishing contract. Rod saw that we had momentum, so one night over dinner and a very nice bottle of wine in Long Beach we talked about what was next in both of our worlds. From this conversation I sensed that Rod might be thinking about the sale of his company when he floated the idea that I should consider this in the coming year given our growth trajectory.

A life-long F1 fan, Campbell had opportunities to mix business with pleasure with programs like Stewart F1, which raced with Ford engines. Image by Rainer Schlegelmilch/Motorsport Images

It soon came to pass that John Chambers, the global sales director for Autosport’s parent company, the UK-based Haymarket Publishing, visited Rod in his Dearborn office. Not long after that meeting, Tony Schulp, Haymarket’s Managing Director, sent me a fax (with my name delightfully misspelled) asking if I would be interested in exploring the sale of all or part of our company to Haymarket. It didn’t take long for me to figure out who was behind this.

Out of pride, I resisted Haymarket’s approaches in various ways for nearly 30 months. But I had several guardian angels, including Rod, who tried to help me understand my limited options given the growing carnage caused by the bitter CART/IRL split and the uncertainty and opportunity present in the disruptive dot.com 1.0 media revolution. During this period Rod sold Campbell & Company in 1999, but he somehow still found time to use his velvet hammer multiple times on my thick skull to help me to see the light. With the blessing of my partners led by Rob Dyson, we finally moved ahead and in early January 2001, RACER Communications became part of Haymarket Publishing.

In hindsight, Rod was right and this was the best choice given all that would soon follow. During this turbulent era I soon came to realize that my new English and Scottish colleagues from Autosport were some of the best people I’d ever worked with, and I never forgot that it was all thanks to Rod, the master matchmaker. With his encouragement, I stayed on with Haymarket as the President of RACER Communications for nearly five years before leaving in December 2005 to relaunch Pfanner Communications as a creative services and strategic consultancy with several key members of our team, including RACER’s founding publisher Bill Sparks. The recession soon followed, and while our small business was nearly swept away, Haymarket took the brunt of large losses generated by RACER Communications during this perilous time, keeping the company alive in the heart of the Carpocalypse.

Rod and I stayed in touch through the ups and downs of both our worlds, and he provided encouragement during some of my darkest days. We hung in there and miraculously fate led me to an invitation by none other than former Haymarket MD Tony Schulp to a dinner in Las Vegas on Oct. 15, 2011 on the eve of the tragic IndyCar finale where I met the new CEO of Haymarket USA. From there, an improbable chain of events led to Bill and myself reacquiring this company in March 2012 in partnership with Rob and Chris Dyson. Thankfully several of those talented Autosport alumni whom I met through Rod’s invisible hand now work with us today in the RACER 3.0 era, including our brilliant Editor-In-Chief, Laurence Foster, and John Chambers who, ironically, is Racer Media & Marketing’s global sales director.

Campbell maintained a regular presence in the RACER orbit. He’s pictured here talking with then-IndyCar marketing chief C.J. O’Donnell at RACER’s annual Long Beach industry party in 2015.

Rod was pleased and proud of how this turned out, and I am certain that you would not be reading these words today on RACER.com without Rod’s divine intervention, or the moments his kind and optimistic spirit lifted my spirits when I needed it most. For this I am eternally grateful, because he truly changed my life for the better and saved our company in the process. However, while I once thought I was somehow special or unique in Rod’s world, I’ve since come to realize that this was simply how Rod embraced the alchemy of friendships and the opportunities that most of us could not see to guide us to wildly improbable but positive outcomes.

One week after his passing, I am sure that Rod would not want us to mourn him after such a long, beautiful and happy life. Instead, I believe he would want us be thankful for the good things and great people in our own lives — especially those who share their incorrigible optimism, infectious passion and uncommon courage regardless of the odds stacked against them. Like Rod, these are the ones who will lead us to the future we desire. In times like those we are experiencing today, we need people like Rod Campbell now more than ever.

So goodbye, and thank you my wonderful friend. You were the most optimistic man I’ve ever met. May peace and comfort surround your beloved Sandra, Heather and Alison along with all of your family and many friends around the world.

Oh, and thank you T.B.

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