PFANNER: Built to win

Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

PFANNER: Built to win

Insights & Analysis

PFANNER: Built to win

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On Sunday, January 26, 2020 I boarded Delta Flight 1923 departing Daytona at 5:55 am. The distant wail of racing engines greeted passengers as we moved through the jetway and I felt the usual tinge of regret for leaving Daytona International Speedway before the Rolex 24 was over. The vibe in the IMSA paddock at Daytona was upbeat and I was optimistic about the 2020 racing season ahead. As I slid into seat 23A, I glanced up the aisle and noticed a family boarding the flight wearing surgical face masks and I immediately thought of recent reports of a mysterious lethal virus reported in Wuhan, China that had caused the lockdown of the city with a population of more than 11 million.

What appeared to be an abundance of caution by this family did not instinctively translate into fear for my own safety. It instead awakened a disquieting train of thought about the very real possibility of this mystery virus eventually spreading to the United States, given our close commercial ties to China. Before checking my IMSA app for the race running order I scrolled through my Apple News app to learn that there was a report of a man infected with the virus in Washington State. The next day, the Centers for Disease Control offered guidance for travelers to avoid non-essential travel to China and I realized it might be just a matter of time before this invisible enemy would directly impact our way of life.

In February and early March I continued to travel by air to Detroit for client meetings, Sebring for the Trans Am/SVRA opener, Las Vegas for the Mint 400 and Jacksonville for the Amelia Island Concours. Along the way, surgical masks became a far more common sight in terminals and on flights as news reports about the relentless spread of the novel coronavirus soon became the dominant story. By the time I arrived at Amelia Island for the tribute to Roger Penske, elbow bumps had replaced handshakes and many conversations were often about personal health and safety rather than cars.

Upon arriving home from Florida on the evening of Saturday, March 7, I decided to cancel my planned trip to St. Pete for the NTT IndyCar Series season opener and a planned trip to Daytona and Sebring the following week due to growing concerns for my family and our business as the gravity of the situation became obvious. In the span of just 42 days, a disquieting feeling had evolved into something that was negatively impacting all of our lives. It was now clear that this was going to get far worse before it got better. Four days later, President Trump announced sweeping travel restrictions to Europe and in the following days a wave of event cancellations and postponements brought racing — and sports — to a stop in America. This was now very real and most of the world’s governments also took similar actions to slow the spread of the virus. I wrote about these pivotal moments in two columns titled The Day the Earth Stood Still and A Silent Spring.

All this now seems like another lifetime in the context of the death, suffering, loss and social disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring with every sunrise.

But racing is the focus of this site, so on to my point. We are now living in a reality that would have been impossible to imagine on the morning of January 26, 2020 as I left Daytona. We’re about to witness the 104th Indianapolis 500 being run in August in front of vast empty grandstands. Today, IMSA’s GT classes will compete at Virginia International Raceway and NASCAR is staging doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday for its Cup and Xfinity Series in a hectic five-race weekend at Dover. It is also worth noting that during this past week it was confirmed that the Formula 1 Concorde Agreement was signed by all teams, thus assuring the future of that sport.

Racing in front of empty stadiums is a sad fact of 2020, but it also has demonstrated the resilience of racers in the face of adversity. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

The truth is that it is a miracle that any races, large or small, are happening at all given the immense challenges presented to the sanctioning bodies, teams, promoters, broadcast and commercial partners of our sport. I am deeply grateful to everyone in every series and sanctioning body for finding a way to move forward safely. During this unprecedented time you’ve all proved that you learn and adapt quickly as you bravely lead under pressure in the most extreme of circumstances. For me this is the ultimate validation of our sport.

Auto racing is defined by courage, commitment and ingenuity. So, on this historic weekend I want to personally thank Roger Penske and Jim France for being all that and more by putting everything on the line to preserve our sport at this critical moment. Thank you also to Penske Entertainment’s Mark Miles and Jay Frye for their leadership. Kudos also go to IMSA’s Ed Bennett and John Doonan for your tireless efforts and winning mindset. Props also go to NASCAR’s Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell for the work you’ve done in managing so many moving parts in such a complex portfolio of racing assets. All clearly still believe in the sport’s future, as does John Malone and the team at Liberty Media and the Formula 1 group led by Chase Carey and Ross Brawn.

In case you hadn’t noticed, all but one of those individuals mentioned are American, which illustrates our leadership in this new era of global motorsports.

IMSA President John Doonan and Acura Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves ponder the new normal during the series’ return to Daytona in July. Michael Levitt/ Motorsport Images

Like Roger Penske, we at RACER believe there is opportunity in every moment – no matter how challenging it may be. There are also many lessons in what has happened during this dark and turbulent time in our world.

From the data we see for RACER.com it is clear that during uncertain times, racing fans, young and old, are attracted to the things we love. I believe that we seek more than a passing distraction (pun intended) but instead, we engage in the sport to remember who we really are because for me, racing is has always been in the inspiration business first and the entertainment business second.

In that context, we are truly grateful that RACER.com continues to grow at a record pace in terms of reach and engagement. As of this writing, August 2020 is showing a 48.41% growth in unique users compared to August 2019. Year over-year unique user growth for the first seven months of 2020 vs the same period last year is up 45.13% with an additional 1,188,914 users visiting the site during the period.

The RACER audience is getting younger, with the 18-24 segment growing by 169.03% during the period and the 25-34 segment growing by 73.19%. Our female audience has also grown by 162.23% during the first seven months of 2020 and now represents 20.54% of the RACER.com readership vs 12.46% for the same period in 2019.

Our sister site, VintageMotorsport.com, has also shown strong year-over-year growth with a 394.42% increase in unique users during the first seven months of 2020 vs the same period in 2019.

The emergence of E-racing as a substitute for physical racing events during the period showed that auto racing is one of the few sports to translate directly and compellingly into the virtual world. There are several positive implications to this but the most important is that auto racing can be actively engaging, energizing and growing its fanbase 24/7/365 with the right strategy.

All this gives me hope for the future on this most unusual Indy 500 weekend. I believe that racing will emerge from this era as a smarter, more efficient and more agile culture with a greater respect for its legacy of bravely getting to the future first.

What comes next is all that has ever really mattered in this sport. It was built for this moment and it is the destiny of the leaders of our sport to be where they are today.

Thank you to all of our readers, advertisers and commercial partners for sticking with us and the sport we love. It is now up to all of us who love racing to reward their faith by sharing our passion and growing the sport. We will never forget that this is why our company exists and this is why we do what we do for you.

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