Home

Racing to Market

Earlier this year, Mouser Electronics pulled off a marketing/branding coup. They won the Indy 500, arguably the biggest, most famous automobile race in the world.

As an official partner of driver Tony Kanaan’s KV Racing Technology team, Mouser’s name and corporate logo were prominently displayed on the race car’s side pods and front wings. On any given day that delivers a certain amount of prestige and brand recognition. But the Indy 500 is no ordinary motor race. It is the largest single-day sporting event in the world, bar none. It is also the most historic auto race in the world with roots dating back to 1911. Mouser is now a part of that history.

It should come as no surprise, I guess, that Mouser would see the value in using racing as a promotional tool. Their president and CEO, Glenn Smith – who just celebrated 40 years with the company – races a Porsche Boxster 986 in club events in Texas. Although just a hobby, his interest in the sport made him very aware of its commercial appeal.

“When we visited one of the teams and found out how many engineers they had involved in the program and the amount of technology in every car, it was sort of compelling,” he explained. “We thought we could use it to get some good branding exposure.”

When asked what made him choose an IndyCar over other forms of racing, such as NASCAR, Smith was quick to answer. “I think there’s an emotional appeal to Indy,” he said. “For me, I know when I was a kid, that was the Memorial Day weekend tradition – watch the Indy 500. But when you look at the platforms, when you look at what IndyCar does, they have a significantly larger engineering team that focuses on electronics. They do a lot more measurements; there are hundreds of sensors on each car. [They have] telemetry channels and state-of-the-art engine control systems, and with all of the monitoring that goes on, it definitely puts them in a different place for us, as an electronics company, than NASCAR for example.”

In 2011, their first year in IndyCar racing, they partnered with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Indy 500 pole winner Alex Tagliani. In 2012 they switched to the KV Racing Technology team owned by venture capitalist Kevin Kalkhoven and former driver Jimmy Vasser with driver Tony Kanaan.

“We love Sam Schmidt – great guy and great team – and everything there was first class in terms of their operation,” said Smith, “but then there’s Tony Kanaan. It was kind of hard to pass up a guy with that kind of perseverance, that has made that many attempts at the Indy 500 and still hadn’t achieved it…until now.”

Things got off to a good start in 2012. Kanaan – or “TK” as he’s affectionately known to fans – started eighth in the 2012 Indy 500 and found himself in the lead with just six laps to go. But he couldn’t hang on and wound up finishing third behind Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

The rest of the season produced mixed results, but Mouser’s faith in the team never waivered. When the 2013 Indy 500 rolled around, TK and the team did not seem all that impressive. They qualified 12th fastest at 226.949 mph, almost 2 mph slower than pole winner Ed Carpenter. But when the green flag fell on race day, it took Kanaan just nine laps to get to the front and he was able to run there at will. Altogether he led the race 15 times, including that all-important last lap. As it turns out, that was all part of the plan.

“We concentrated for the entire month on working on the race car and not worrying about qualifying,” explained Kanaan, “because the goal is to win a 500 mile race, not a 4 lap race, which is qualifying. Honestly, it’s always nice to start at the front; it’s nice to have the pole, which I’ve done before. But we decided as a team that nobody will remember who started on the pole, but they remember who won the race.”

Kanaan, who has been involved in IndyCar racing since 1998, is one of the most experienced drivers on the circuit. His best friend, the late two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, developed the current IndyCar model, the Dallara DW12, and according to Kanaan it is one of the best cars he’s ever driven.

“The biggest difference in this car from the past cars I’ve driven [is that] the ground effects are very good, so it relies a lot less on the front and rear wings, explained Kanaan. “The floor [of the car] is so efficient that it sucks the car down. It’s a huge advantage. Basically it’s the most efficient way to get the speed out of it because the wings will slow you down, but we can run very little wings. To use an example, we go from 0 to -10.5 [degrees] and from 0 to +5. I raced at -4.5! That’s how efficient the car is. And it’s a safer car than in the past. It’s definitely one of the best cars I’ve ever driven.”

It’s not every day that a company sponsors a car that wins the Indy 500, especially with a driver as popular as Tony Kanaan, so to celebrate Mouser hosted a Tony Kanaan Day at their corporate headquarters in Mansfield, Texas. Employees were all given special commemorative tee-shirts. Customers, media and VIPs were invited, as were the citizens of Mansfield whose mayor presented Kanaan with an official proclamation and key to the city. The only fly in the ointment occurred when severe weather on the east coast delayed Kanaan’s flight out of Miami, where he lives. That left several hundred people standing around on Mouser’s front lawn, eating hot dogs, drinking soda, and wondering if a sunburn would be all they got for their efforts. Some questioned why Kanaan wasn’t already in Texas with the rest of his team preparing for that weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. He was more than happy to answer that question when he finally arrived, not quite two hours late. He couldn’t catch an earlier flight, he explained, because he had to be in Miami that morning to take the written test to become a U.S. citizen. All was suddenly forgiven as the crowd burst into applause. How could you not love this guy?

As for the future, Glenn Smith points out that Kanaan, whose contract is up this year, is negotiating with the team, “so we’ll have to weigh all our options.” But, he adds, “I can’t think of a better team. Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven are fantastic guys. We’ve enjoyed being around them and I don’t have any reason to change, but we’ll just have to wait and see how the teams all settle out at the end of the season and where all the drivers end up.”

One gets the impression he hopes everything stays status quo. But whatever happens, one thing won’t change. Of the thousands of companies around the world promoting themselves and their products by sponsoring race cars, very few can say they’ve won the Indy 500. But Mouser can.