ELBURN, Ill. -- As the most successful team owner in IndyCar history, winning a record 15 Indianapolis 500s, Roger Penske has earned the nickname "The Captain."
Team Penske president Tim Cindric, however, believes a new nickname is appropriate for his boss: The Closer.
Toward the end of the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, it appeared the three-driver Team Penske operation would be scaled back to two drivers in 2011. Will Power of Australia was set with sponsorship from Verizon and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil would continue his long and colorful relationship with the team. But it appeared that Australia's Ryan Briscoe would be the odd man out as the team concluded its sponsorship with Philip Morris before the start of the 2010 season.
Cindric indicated last season that a sponsor would have to be arranged before a three-car commitment could be announced for next season.
That commitment was finalized last week when series sponsor IZOD announced it would join forces with Team Penske as an associate sponsor on all three entries, with primary sponsorship for Briscoe in the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 as well as a select number of other IndyCar contests.
When it came time to finalize the sponsorship contract, Penske was the best man for the job.
"He's always been the one that's always the visionary," Cindric said of Penske. "He's the guy you want to bring in the ninth inning for sure. He's a great closer. And sometimes he thinks outside of the box beyond maybe where our head's at and has a different idea and a different reach for how to get there. But he's certainly the guy that knows all the pieces that go into the puzzle. He also realizes that no partnership lasts very long without it being a win-win across the board.
"You look at our associations with Phillip Morris over the years and Exxon Mobil and Hugo Boss, all these programs there's always an end to something. But when you look at our average years, our average sponsor is 15 years. That's really unheard of in terms of the motorsport industry."
It was the third sponsorship announcement in less than a week for Team Penske. Shell/Pennzoil announced it would sponsor Castroneves in the Indy 500 and Meijer announced an associate sponsorship with the team for all three cars. Auto Club also announced an associate sponsorship that will include NASCAR driver Kurt Busch and Castroneves beginning next season.
"I think in 2011, we continue to build toward that and to have Ryan flying the colors for the IZOD brand and what that represents, not only in the marketplace, but also within the series," Cindric said. "I think the one thing that I see a lot of synergies with these announcements in not only what happens on track but what happens off track, and I think that just continues to show the strength of what Roger has built on and off the track."
When Philip Morris was forced to step out of sports sponsorships in accordance with the Master Agreement between State's Attorney General regarding tobacco sponsorship, IndyCar critics wondered if it was the beginning of the end of Team Penske in IndyCar racing.
That couldn't have been further from the truth.
It only inspired Penske and his race team to go out and find viable replacements to the tremendous sponsorship they enjoyed from Philip Morris through the Marlboro years. That's because when Roger Penske wants to get a job done it gets completed the right way.
"He's obviously respected in the industry of racing but also in what I call the real world," Cindric said of Penske. "He and I try not to be in the same place too often, aside from the racetrack, because he has a day job and I'm supposed to get it to a certain, I guess, place on the field and there's a time to utilize his time and a time to let the rest of us play. And I think, really, our marketing group has continued to execute to find out where the potentials are, and then we try to figure out how we can actually put together a relationship.
"So, no doubt, he's the best closer in the business, no matter whether you're in racing or sitting in the boardroom."
For Mike Kelly, Executive Vice President of the Marketing Group for Phillips-Van Heusen, the owners of IZOD, there is no better team to be involved with for the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 than Penske.
"We've learned a few things the last few years, but one of the things we've learned is that Roger wins," Kelly said. "We also know that that's not easy. You just don't show up to win. To beat the competition, you develop the kind of long-term record that performs not only on the track but off the track. That shows all kinds of levels of character, of commitment, of what it takes to build a big corporation.
"We're working hard as a brand and as a corporation to keep our end of the bargain," added Kelly. "And honestly, to try to model what we think it means to be a title sponsor. There's a responsibility, I always say, to try to help to create a Petri Dish and model the kinds of things that will be attractive, because what's really required to build the sport is greater sponsor involvement. Getting sponsor funds to flow to the teams, to flow to the drivers, that put it out there, put out so much out on the line, they deserve sponsorship dollars, there's no question to fund the sport.
"So to pay off all that work, all that hard work with a win, let alone at someplace like Centennial or the 500 or to be involved with Ryan at the end of the season, to see that, are you kidding? I mean, that would be just .. that would be just over the top."
Briscoe can now feel both satisfaction and relief that he will be back at Team Penske next season while becoming the "New Model" for the sponsor.
"I want to help with that momentum," Briscoe said. "I'm really fired up for next year. I feel really good going into a new phase and with a whole lot of drive and determination. I'm really fired up to have a good year. And especially flying the IZOD colors, at the Indy 500, the Centennial race, I feel like it's my time and I just can't wait for the New Year to come around.
"Just to be associated with Team Penske is an amazing feeling. I mean, ever since I came to the team back in 2007, you really feel like you've reached the pinnacle. They're the best. And no driver would want to be anywhere else."
In Penske's mind; he's not simply closing a deal; he's doing his job. And that is why in the history of IndyCar racing, none have been better at putting a professional product on the race track than Penske.
NASCAR Sprint Cup teams will get a chance to test out newly repaved Daytona International Speedway next week in preparation for next February's Daytona 500.
It's the first time Daytona International Speedway has been repaved since 1978.
"I know for us at Penske Racing with the 2 and the 22, we need to be there on track, gathering data, understanding as much as we can about the new surface at Daytona," Kurt Busch said. "We know that it's the most prestigious race for us all year long, and if we can come out of the gates strong, we need to have as many test sessions at tracks as we can get, and that means tracks that we race on. Of course we're going to have to head to some other short tracks to get some more information. We have to continue to push hard, and I don't think it costs all that much out of our budgets to head down to Daytona and shake some cars down getting ready for the Daytona 500.
"It's been great, so we're staying busy."
The offseason in racing provides me a chance to become an NFL fan. This past Sunday, in particular, gave me the opportunity to step away from the press boxes and media centers to enjoy a sport as a fan -- even if the backdrop was a snowy night at Soldier Field.
Interestingly, the Patriots overwhelming win over the Bears in snow-covered Soldier Field, put into perspective the difficulties NASCAR has faced as it battles with the NFL for fans and viewership. One of the main topics of discussion during the final 2½ months of the Sprint Cup season was the drop in television ratings during the Chase. And while NASCAR has its own share of memorable venues -- Daytona, Indianapolis, Bristol -- they can sometimes come up short in giving fans the same experience they would have sitting as snow falls on a NFL Sunday.
And that is why NASCAR's competition remains the NFL more than any other form of motorsports. Once the NFL kicks off in September, pro football is king. Instead of taking the championship well into November, maybe NASCAR would benefit from capping off its season earlier, avoiding a head-to-head battle with a picturesque Sunday in Soldier Field.