As unusual as it may be, I have never been one to root for a specific team or driver. I have always held the opinion that I just want to see good racing week in and week out; a close championship battle by the end of the year doesn’t hurt things either. I always seem to root for the guys in P2 through P5. It doesn’t matter the situation; just seeing the current leader usurped, whether in a race or the championship, is what I watch for.
I have been heavily back into indycar racing since 2006; yet I could never unequivocally define my favorite driver or team. Of course I had a few I would like to do well throughout the year, but I have never lived or died by the finishing results of a particular organization. The closest I had ever been to team allegiance was always with Andretti. Not because were proven winners, but because they used to be. That was the one team that could realistically take the fight to Penske and Ganassi week after week. With that said, I favored Tony Kanaan; the affable leader of a terribly mixed up team.
That all changed during practice for the 2011 Indy 500. I can usually make about two hours of practice after work, so I would load up the backpack and grab my hat… my IndyCar Series hat, the same one I get all my signatures on. I never have felt the need to have specific items for specific drivers to sign. One hat to rule them all.
Early in the afternoon on Tuesday that week Jake Query, sometimes IMS radio announcer, tweeted that we could meet him behind the Pagoda at 5pm and receive a free Panther Racing hat. Not being one to turn down free stuff, I made sure I was there at the specified time. He did, in fact, give about 15 of us a very cool JR Hildebrand hat.
Not only was it visually cool; with its slick camo under the bill and not-flashy-but-classy color scheme, but it was also literally cool. Most IndyCar or IMS related hats are heavy, 100 percent cotton with no circulation to be found. The Panther hat had a nice, white mesh rear and was lighter all around. I immediately swapped hats out and never looked back. I guess I was a Panther fan.
Then race day came. I was there in the bleachers rocking my nice new Panther hat. Again, I still had no skin in the game; just the perennial need to see a good race. The last ten laps were different. I understood the implications of what we were witnessing. A rookie American, driving the National Guard car, leading the 500 for a team who has had a severe fall from grace, but this was different. I had that hat on; I was rooting for my team. I had never felt this kind of connection with a team or driver. I was about to live or die, depending on the outcome of the final few laps.
Pre Panther hat, I would have been amped to see that kind of finish. The king of the underdogs had won the race. This is exactly the type of outcome I always hope for. But I was absolutely gutted; my guy was supposed to win that one! What was I saying?! I had never experienced that sort of emotional reaction to a team or driver. Simply by giving me a free hat, Panther had made a fan for life. That hat instantly became my new race hat regardless of what series I was out to see.
Fast forward a few months, and they are the only operation that I really interact with on Twitter. I follow a handful of teams, mostly the underdogs, but rarely do I succumb to their attempts at fan interaction. But when Panther asks the fans questions, I will usually reply with something, because why not? These guys were the first team to really focus my attention.
Recently, the team asked if any locals were headed out to the state of INDYCAR presentation. In a sign of continued support I answered yes without much more thought. I have no idea how many people answered them, but I know at least two of us ended up winning a prize pack just for showing up. They sent me a box of stuff, included was a signed hat. Awesome! One to wear everywhere and one to display; thanks Panther!
Now I don’t know if Panther, or any other team for that matter, has a free-stuff-for-fans budget, but they should. In a time when focused eyes are the single most important thing the series and teams are going after; personal connections can be a great way to make diehard fans if done correctly. I will always root for Panther and JR, even when they go their separate ways.
With the simple act of giving out hats, the team has made strong personal connections. Handing someone a hat at a race is the best way to get team swag out there and allies in your corner. I have always thought the distribution of team merchandise is a hit or miss scenario. There just isn’t the amount of stuff for the smaller teams out there. This is a simple way for them to circumvent the entire issue, give it straight to the fans.
I will be out there this year; showing my support for the Panther operation and I don’t have a choice in the matter. They thrust their team on me and I graciously accepted. Would I be singing a different song if the 500 had played out differently and Panther was not in the running? Possibly, but that doesn’t change what happened. I still don’t know if I could call JR my favorite driver with TK still out there, but I am sure that Panther is my favorite team; all because of the power of a hat.