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IndyCar's Fisher, Newgarden show pushing forward can require U-turn

February 13, 2014

There’s been a lot of discussion by IndyCar Series executives recently about driver marketing. Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles said the issue is on his front burner this year. If he’s wondering how to get started on this daunting task, he might consult someone in his own paddock.

She may not be the first person that comes to mind when thinking of sports marketing, but I’ve always thought Sarah Fisher has a firmer grasp on connecting with fans than most in the IndyCar paddock, including many of the richer owners and more successful drivers.

I have to believe Fisher’s approach eventually will pay off in partnerships with bigger sponsors, a larger budget and a more successful team. Will Fisher’s team ever land in the winner’s circle as much as the Penske, Andretti and Ganassi armadas? Well, she has a long way to go.

Young race car driver Josef Newgarden appears to have the talent to help grow the team. Like Fisher, he also appears to have a firm grasp of what it means to market himself, his team and the series.

A lot of times, it’s not the grand marketing plans, big splashy ads and red carpet appearances that move a sport forward. Many times it starts at a very grass-roots level.

If ever a local university decided to offer a class in grass-roots marketing, Fisher and Newgarden would be equally qualified at standing at the front of the class as professor.

The following story, which Fisher recently shared, should be lesson No. 1.

When IndyCar fan Lesa Tennant heard a voice scream “Go, IndyCar!” out of a vehicle window passing by her Bargersville home last summer, she assumed a few kids were acting silly.

Tennant didn’t realize that inside the vehicle sat Newgarden and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing mechanic Danny Klotz. The two were driving back to Indianapolis from Sweetwater Lake, where the SFHR team enjoys spending time away from the track during the summer.

Newgarden saw Tennant wearing an IndyCar shirt. After yelling from the window, Newgarden and Klotz decided to make a U-turn and surprise Tennant.

“I didn’t recognize Josef at first,” Tennant said. “They pulled in my driveway and said, ‘We saw you are an IndyCar fan, and we like to meet IndyCar fans.’”

Said Klotz: “We talked about the Indianapolis 500. Lesa asked us where our seats are, and Josef responded with ‘Having the best seat in the house.’”

When Newgarden finally revealed himself, a shocked Tennant ran inside to get her husband, Leroy, an avid race fan.

“I was on the treadmill in the front room, and I thought he looked like Josef,” Leroy Tennant said. “But then I thought there’s no way Josef Newgarden would be in my driveway. When my wife came and told me Josef was out there, I just couldn’t believe it. That kind of thing doesn’t happen.”

Newgarden and Klotz have continued their relationship with the Tennants. Leroy and his son Kevin attended the IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway just weeks after that initial meeting, and they walked the grid with the team before the race.

Leroy, Lesa and their family recently made a visit to SFHR’s race shop, just minutes down the street from the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Johnson County residents have no doubt recounted their story to dozens and dozens of family members and friends.

No press conference. No press release. No trumped-up event. Still, a simple gesture from a 23-year-old driver and a mechanic transformed the Tennants from fans to ambassadors. From silent observers to boisterous advocates.

It all started with a U-turn.

A sudden change of direction.

For IndyCar’s sake, let’s hope we see more of those going forward.

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