In an age of instant news thanks to social media, the minutes of silence from Vision Racing's Twitter account were absolutely deafening.
You have to understand - in the hands of PR veteran Pat Caporali, the Vision Twitter was one of the most active not just in racing, but in all of sports. "Active" is perhaps not the best word, because unlike most celebrity Twitter accounts the Vision Racing stream was full of both news and responses to followers. For every original tweet, there were three or four "@replies" of Pat giving personal attention to the team's fans.
That was - and still is, for now - a lot of work for Pat, which in and of itself is rather amazing considering the team's origins. But she doesn't mind the job or, indeed, the personal contact with the masses. And that's what makes Pat Caporali - and, by extension, the Vision Racing team - one of the most respected presences in the IndyCar racing community.
So when the rumor of Vision's shutdown spread like wildfire across the Internet and there was no response from Pat, the silence told us everything we needed - but hated - to know.The avalanche of astonishment and angst that followed first the official word broken by Curt Cavin at the Indianapolis Star and then the official statement on Vision Racing's Twitter and website was impressive. It speaks volumes about how far Vision Racing has come in the five years since Tony George purchased the assets of Kelley Racing to build his own home-grown Indy Racing League team.
In 2005, of course, Vision Racing was more of a grand inside joke, a tongue-in-cheek reference to George's vision for open-wheel racing's future. The popular sentiment at the time was that George had gone one step too far by starting his own race team. Sure, they said, the IRL itself could be seen as a response to George being shunned by the cabal of team owners in power in CART... a way for him to shoehorn his way into the club. If only he had just started a team instead of a whole series, they lamented sarcastically.
Now Tony George was a series owner and a team owner. Even better, his driver was his stepson Ed Carpenter, a decent guy and a decent driver but not someone that most people would expect to headline an IndyCar series team. When the team came out of the gates at a snail's pace, inhabiting the tail end of the field at most events, the snarky backhand comments became outright derision. Behold! the legacy of the Hulman-George racing family, they crowed.
Then, a funny thing happened. A web and cell service with a cartoonish blue bird as a mascot took text messaging and turned it into a broadband phenomenon. Twitter offered "common" people the opportunity to interact directly with others, especially famous people who were intrigued by the technology. It provided the instant gratification of texting without sacrificing the privacy of a personal cellphone number or the bandwidth of an e-mailbox.
Many celebrities were slow to adopt Twitter, and those who did preferred to use it as an ego booster, broadcasting the minutiae of their daily lives for voracious consumption by fans they did not have to acknowledge. The folks at Vision, however, saw opportunity. Ed Carpenter not only got a Twitter account, he put the URL for it on his race helmet. Pat Caporali and Michael Kaltenmark jumped into the fray with the team account and built a Facebook fan page to supplement it.
The idea was to meet the fans on their level and treat them like invited guests into the daily workings of their lives and careers. It was unprecedented - the closest most celebs got to that kind of treatment was treating their followers like an extended entourage. But you could send a tweet to Ed Carpenter and he would answer you back. And fans who communicated with the team PR through Twitter and Facebook got responses as if their opinions and questions mattered.
And suddenly, Vision Racing was no longer a joke.
The aggressive and friendly outreach by Vision's PR department, coupled with a slow but steady improvement in equipment quality and on-track results, acted to turn the team's image 180 degrees around. Ed Carpenter went from being the entitled stepson of the series' owner to being an underdog hero, and Vision became "the people's team." With the series' top teams seemingly ever farther out of reach both on the track and to the fans, Vision became the David to the Goliath represented by the IRL's "red cars" of Penske Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
In 2009, Tony's daughter Lauren turned 18, and soon afterwards she became the team owner for Vision's Indy Lights team. Taking a page from Vision's IndyCar PR team, she took the concept of social media accessibility and ran with it. Starting with an astoundingly frank and enormously entertaining blog on Vision's website, Lauren also took to Twitter with the same openness and willingness to engage as her coworkers. Her efforts managed to do what some pundits thought was impossible - give enough of an inside perspective on the George family to turn them into sympathetic and appealing people instead of the scions of open-wheel racing disruption.
For all of these reasons, the news of Vision's lack of sponsorship and subsequent shutdown pained a lot of people much more than anyone expected. All of a sudden, people didn't want Vision to go away.
And after a couple of days of struggling with the reality of their present, the folks at Vision decided that that outpouring of sentiment could represent something unprecedented - the opportunity for fans to become directly involved in an outreach to support their favorite teams in the same way Vision supported their fans. Thus was born the Vision Racing "Letters of Reference" Campaign.
The idea is actually quite similar to the viral fan campaigns that have been successful in reviving television shows like NBC's Chuck, which parlayed a massive fan outreach to show sponsor Subway into a reprieve from cancellation and a third season, defying Hollywood's conventional wisdom about such things in the process. To wit:
If you are willing, we would ask you to send a letter, email, short note, fax to Vision Racing that we can pass along to potential sponsors AND the sponsors that have been supportive of us in the past. (They don't all yet understand the power of twitter & facebook)
Think of it as a letter of reference that we can use to find and secure sponsors that want your business.
It is an audacious plan and one that has no guarantee of working. But then again, so was the social media outreach that Vision Racing embarked upon.
To some, it may smack of desperation on the part of a race team struggling not to fold in uncertain economic times. In all honesty, that is exactly what it is. None of the people at Vision Racing want to lose their jobs. But it is also partly a social experiment - when all conventional methods of finding funding to race have been exhausted, will unconventional methods work?
Time will tell whether their methods will work, but Vision Racing has no shortage of support from fans and no lack of ingenuity in its employees. Perhaps the direct evidence of that support and ingenuity will do what no PowerPoint or sponsorship packet can.
No matter what happens, it's clear that the vision which drives this team is no longer the pejorative it once was.