(via The Star) – IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe has about 19,000 not-so-secret admirers.
They are the employees of Hinchcliffe’s Colorado-based Arrow Electronics sponsor, who wear IndyCar gear at work and champ at the bit to watch races in support of their favourite driver.
Hinchcliffe does his part too, often going out of his way to keep the romance alive.
“Earlier this season, Hinch surprised the employees in one of our California branches before the Long Beach race. It’s not every day you have a professional race car driver at your desk asking to take a selfie with you — that was a lot of fun,” says Rich Kylberg, Arrow’s vice-president of corporate marketing and communications.
“We also activate events at a lot of the races where our employees get a chance to meet Hinch and check out the No. 5 car up close and personal.”
Arrow signed its sponsorship deal with Schmidt Peterson Motorsport (SPM) in 2015, the same year Hinchcliffe inked his deal to join the squad after three seasons with Andretti Autosport. The company develops electronic components and enterprise computing solutions for industrial and commercial customers. It operates in more than 90 countries and reported more than $23-billion (U.S.) in revenue and about $523-million in profit in its last fiscal year.
Getting Hinchcliffe was a bit of a coup for the Schmidt Peterson outfit, which usually attracted younger stars trying to make a name for themselves. Hinchcliffe filled the seat vacated by future IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud.
Hinchcliffe’s outgoing personality and sharp sense of humour, which gets him exposure outside the cockpit, makes him even more attractive to Arrow. For example, last fall he competed on the popular ABC network’s Dancing With the Stars program and finished second. He also appeared on an episode of Family Feud.
It all adds up to bring more name recognition and brand value, Kylberg insists.
“We track the return on all of our investments, and our SPM sponsorship has generated some great brand awareness for us,” he says.
“From Hinch’s turn on Dancing with the Stars last year to his pole position at the 100th running of the Indy 500 in 2016, more and more people are becoming aware of the Arrow brand.”
Although the Arrow name only appeared as a title sponsor in 2015, the roots of the commercial deal between SPM and Arrow can be traced back a few more years to the company’s Semi-Autonomous Motorcar project, or SAM for short.
In 2013, Arrow approached SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt with a plan to develop a vehicle that could be controlled only by head movements. A veteran of 27 Indy Racing League starts, Schmidt was paralyzed from the neck down in a January 2000 accident in pre-season testing at Florida’s Walt Disney World Speedway.
As Arrow and Schmidt collaborated on the Arrow SAM Car project, backing the IndyCar team “evolved organically,” Kylberg says.
“Sponsoring Sam’s racing team was really a natural next step for us — automotive and transportation tech is one of Arrow’s core markets,” he says.
“The No. 5 car aligns to Arrow’s forward-looking mission to operate in the world of Five Years Out — the tangible future of new technologies, new materials, new ideas and new electronics that will make people’s lives better, smarter and more inspired.”
The company collaborated with several others to integrate steering, acceleration, and braking controls into a system that control a car using only back-and-forth and side-to-side head movements. Essentially, the system turns the driver’s head into a joystick using infrared cameras and some reference markers attached to a cap.
It only took a year from the start of the project for Schmidt to exit the pit lane at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray and turn a few laps.
“The first time I got in the car, it felt normal,” Schmidt says at the time. “Driving the car, controlling the car, was the most normal I’ve felt in 15 years.”
Two years later, Schmidt hit speeds of almost 250 kilometres per hour around the famed Brickyard and raced legend Mario Andretti on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in a May exhibition. Although he didn’t beat the former IndyCar and Formula One champion, Schmidt still did a few burnouts following the exhibition.
While the SAM project continues to break ground, its IndyCar’s focus is on speed, innovation and technology that make the sponsorship a good fit for a technology company focusing on innovation.
While the speed may be critical to Hinchcliffe, he insisted that a big attraction for him was the way the company worked with the team owner to get him back behind the wheel and the ongoing relationship it wants to build with his team.
“The way this sponsorship came together through Sam [Schmidt] and the SAM car project that they spearheaded was so special,” he says.
“To see off-track what they have done with him and that project is just amazing, as well as learning about the company and its other philanthropic endeavours it’s involved in, learning how much of the world has been touched by its products, and the unwavering support from everyone in the company. It’s been a huge thing for the entire team.”