The Launch of Silent Partner
It pays to make enduring and genuine business relationships. Not that I need them to “pay off.” It just has a way of working out that way in many cases. As a much younger brow-beaten helmet-carrying “PR guy” for drivers Michael Waltrip, Kyle Petty, Robby Gordon, and Sterling Marlin, my place to find solitude and clear my head from a fast-paced, high-pressure NASCAR life was the Grand Canyon. In fact, I stole away to the GC so often in the late 1990s, to cleanse my brain of the gobbledygook, I ended up logging more than 600 miles in and on the national park’s most primitive hiking trails - almost always with by two older brothers Tom and Bill - or hiking pal Eric Koski (pictured foreground).
Word got out in the NASCAR garage that “Sandman” (as they called me) was in that big hole in the ground seemingly every time the NASCAR tour stopped in Arizona. This caught the attention of Roush Racing president Geoff Smith. Geoff and his PR pro daughter Stephanie stopped by the SABCO Coors Light hauler one day to ask if they could tag along on my next adventure. Tag along? It was reversed. I would have to try to keep up with THEM. One hike became two, then more hikes, and more friends joined. We had quite a little group that I “guided.” During those many hikes I turned down at least two job offers from Geoff. Dream jobs at Roush as some would say. But I was loyal to Felix Sabates, owner of the Coors Light SABCO team and I really wanted to get five years in there. I departed SABCO in late 1999 - my fifth year.
In late 2000 I suffered a health setback that required me to take about a year off to undergo a variety of treatments and some rehab. While there were unfounded rumors coursing through the sport of my pending "demise," one person had no problem picking up the phone to make the call to ask the uncomfortable question of how I was doing.
By August 10, 2001 I was recovering quite nicely, but didn't know how or when I was ever going to be able to reenter the NASCAR work force.
Out of nowhere that day I received a phone call. I didn’t recognize the number. So I felt I'd better answer it. “Jon, it’s Geoff Smith … when are you going to be cleared to go back to work?” uttered Smith with guarded directness. I said, “Right away sir.” “Be at the team plane Sunday at 5:30 a.m.”, he said. “We'll meet with Jack at Watkins Glen.” Now Geoff didn’t know if I was terminal or on the mend back. I was in fact doing quite well healthwise - just looked a little peek-ed.
By the next week they offered me a job at Roush Racing as Senior Director of Special Projects, heading up Roush's driver safety research division. This was a position Geoff and Jack created for me. That turned into a 10-year run at Roush where I threw all I had into repaying those two gentlemen for their rescue.
Over the course of the next decade we built a dynasty of sponsorship acquisition, expansion to 15 teams and a reputation for making marketing activation programs work for the biggest brands. We rode that NASCAR wave.
From 2001 – 2010 I had the privilege to work under two seasoned contractual attorneys who were likely the best dealmakers in all of professional sports. Deals we inked were so valuable that John Henry, owner of the Red Sox, beseeched Jack Roush to sell him the team. Jack Roush refused - twice. But he gave in on Henry’s third attempt and sold half the team. Jack pocketed a rumored $70 million in cash in the ESPN headline-making 2007 merger. Roush Fenway Racing was born, with me in the middle of it all. I was quite blessed.
In building the Roush dynasty I honed my skills under the best in the business. We closed some of the biggest deals in NASCAR history – possibly in all of sports. We pounded the pavement finding opportunities, sold first meetings, crafted unprecedented value propositions, performed amazing research and strategy, wrote succinct proposals loaded with ROI, made the pitches, discovered and implemented new forms of presentation technologies. We were an unrelenting sales and marketing machine with the best strategists in motorsports. We had secured $1.1 billion in new sponsorship revenues across all team assets from between 2002 and 2010. It was a lot of fun winning those Daytona 500s and four series championships. We produced.
It had been my mission to pay back Jack Roush and Geoff Smith for that 2001 rescue. I took pride in turning down numerous offers to depart Roush over those 10 years. But when I was offered an amazingcareer opportunity to assist the nonprofit Patient Advocate Foundation to head up launching their first-ever corporate partnerships department, I had to take great pause to consider it. I felt I needed to take a year off from the intense crucible of sponsor sales in racing to do something less stressful and a bit more personally meaningful.
Roush and Geoff both blessed my decision to resign and take a planned year to go help this cause. It was my new mission. They emphasized I would always have a job at Roush should I elect to return.
After a year away from racing and serving a cause that assisted patients facing life-threatening illness, and getting PAF's new corporate partnerships department stood up, I opted to make my return to the Roush fold, this time with my good friend and legendary engine builder Doug Yates, CEO of Roush Yates Engines and Jack's business partner. RYE needed a Vice President of Marketing and the opportunity to work with Doug on a daily basis proved to be an amazing two years where I was able to secure strategic partners and create new revenue streams to offset the costs of producing these very expensive racing engines. We also opened a 50,000 square-foot retail parts store in Mooresville and built the Roush Yates Performance brand into being internationally recognized and respected.
In late 2012 Robby Gordon approached me with an opportunity to help him launch his all new mega stadium off-road truck racing series that was getting a lot of industry media attention After discussing the situation with Doug Yates and hearing Doug's emphatic words of encouragement to go and seize this opportunity, I went off with Robby and his new series called Stadium Super Trucks for an early 2013 series premier. Putting on massive race events in NFL stadiums - on dirt - was going to be a very exciting adventure and a huge career challenge. But we pulled it off.
Since working again with Robby and getting his new series successfully launched, I went on to manage the budding racing career and sponsor marketing of teen racing sensation and future NASCAR superstar Cole Custer - under the (Gene) Haas Racing Developnent umbrella. In 2015 and after numerous requests for advice, consult, and representation as a result of my own career experience in marketing, strategy, agency PR client work, business development and media relations, my entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. I formed Silent Partner Marketing, LLC, with two great clients ready to go right out of the gate - Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Phoenix and Charlotte's Boxman Studios.
I'm also proud to assist professor Tom Smith who heads Emory University's Goizueta Business School's department of Sports Economics and Finance, as a regular guest lecturer for Tom's undergrad and MBA programs. I look forward to assisting your company also. Feel free to reach out whether you have a racing related need, or a general marketing or management strategy dilema.