By: Tanner Watkins
February 1, 2019 | 8:00 AM
Listen to Doyle Baxter talk about innovation in racing for a half hour and it is easy to see how his project titled Connect.Racing is picking up steam.
A graduate of Xavier University (as a triple major, no less), Baxter is a native of Zionsville with ambitions to bring the first crowdfunded entry to the Indianapolis 500. The nerve to bring Connect.Racing from an idea to reality stemmed from an observation Baxter realized when analyzing IndyCar sponsorship trends.
“One of the trends that I have noticed over the last (handful of) years is that there has been a dramatic shift from B2C sponsorship in IndyCar to B2B sponsorship,” explains Baxter. “There are some complicated business reasons for that – one of them is that it’s proven ineffective to advertise to fans on the livery of a car – but at the heart of it, I still believe that the value of a sport is in the number and dedication of its fans.
“One of the things that Connect.Racing stands to do is to re-insert the fan as a major part of the value proposition of IndyCar.”
While Baxter notes that traditional advertising may still hold its place in motorsports, it leaves a lot to be desired for fans that want engagement. The desire for their own piece of the IndyCar pie is where the young executive’s plan comes into play.
“That’s really what we’re trying to do here at Connect.Racing, to provide that vehicle or mechanism where fans can have deeper, exclusive access to a particular team, and at the same time have that team be something they can lay claim to, be proud of, and excited about—and evangelize.”
Besides enjoying the challenges and opportunities Baxter will be exposed to on the business side of this venture, the love for racing and the Indianapolis 500 is a driving force for the Indiana native.
As a child, Baxter roamed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a friend whose father worked for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“We would spend the summer months and May just kind of meandering around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway talking with yellow shirts and interacting with drivers and engineers, and it was kind of all above my head how cool the experience was,” admits Baxter.
“It wasn’t until many years later that I realized what a gift it was.”
On Indianapolis 500 race day, the Baxter family held a tradition of listening to the race by radio. The group would pick up the Sunday edition of the Indianapolis Star, cut out the starting line-up and draw drivers for a little bit of friendly wagering. Even their dog Molly would have a “dog in the fight,” traditionally drawing the 33rd place starter.
Run-ins with drivers like Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon during those formative years also contributed to a love affair with open-wheel racing, but it wasn’t until Baxter got a chance to study abroad in France that he actually watched the Indianapolis 500 live on television.
“The Indy 500 was always something that we listened to on the radio, and it wasn’t until I spent a year living in France during college that I (got) to watch the ‘500’ by searching YouTube and finding a stream somewhere,” Baxter remembers. “For the first time (I was) really watching with my own eyes how cool the sport looks beyond just how cool it sounds and how exciting it is on the radio.
“That kind of started a spiral towards all forms of open wheel racing. I got into Formula E and a little bit of Formula One as well, but Indy, of course, remains the heart and soul of everything that I’m doing.”
Fast-forward to present day, and all of those life events have resulted in a thoroughly-planned effort towards crowdfunding – the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet – an Indianapolis 500 entry.
The idea of crowdfunding a car dates back nearly a year for Baxter. It was through family friends connected to the IndyCar community that the ambitious executive opened a line of communication with Rob Wynne, an Indianapolis native and attorney who now serves as an advisor to Connect.Racing.
“We were brainstorming ideas and I said, ‘what do you think is the viability of crowdfunding an IndyCar?’ And Rob got really excited because just two or three years before he had told one of his legal clients – who happens to be an IndyCar team – that they should launch a third or fourth car into the ‘500’ with a crowdfund to generate that additional buzz,” Baxter recalls. “Because of the traditional thinking of IndyCar, it didn’t go anywhere at the time.”
Posing the idea at the right time to the right person, Baxter and Wynne determined that they believe it is indeed possible for a legal partnership to be created with an existing team and have the entry be funded by the public – the fans.
From there, Baxter embarked on a three-month program at the Founder Institute in Cincinnati where he took the idea of Connect.Racing and ran it through a buzz saw of courses designed to accelerate the launch of an enduring business.
“For three months you go through an intensive class – it’s kind of like Shark Tank – and at the end of each class, you pitch in front of a board of CEOs and investors – and they kind of tear you to shreds,” says Baxter jokingly. “But over the course of three months, you get better at pitching, you understand your value proposition, you build a business plan and a business case and all of these things.
“So we went through that program, and there were 75 companies that applied to the Founder Institute that summer. Sixteen were accepted and only eight graduated (from the program), with us being one of them. That was the first foray into realizing the true potential power of what we are doing.”
Through the Founder Institute, Baxter set up the formal legal entity of Connect.Racing, Inc. which will actually operate the crowdfund and receive the funds while also conducting negotiations with IndyCar Series teams. And while he can’t reveal any names, Baxter notes that the outfit has already been in conversation with a couple teams with talks becoming more and more detailed recently.
“I really wish that I could (share more) because it is exciting, but we are in the early stages of figuring out what exactly this is going to be from a cost perspective because obviously, there are a million different ways you can calculate how much it’s going to cost to do what we’re doing,” explains Baxter.
And his plans to recruit fans – which in this case are also financial backers – includes the implementation of their own website and a small-but-steadily growing social media presence.
“We have been out there a little bit on social media to drum up some support – primarily to drive fans to our Connect.Racing Newsfeed, which is just a place for our community to start encountering the name Connect.Racing while starting to interact with each other,” says Baxter. “(That way) when we launch the crowdfund, there is some tangible place for fans to all go and collaborate.”
At this point, Baxter and Connect.Racing are eager to begin raising funds – but only after a contract is in place to work in collaboration with an existing team. In theory, Connect.Racing would bring the funding and decision-making to the entry while an affiliated team would bring equipment, personnel and the like.
“The next step, in my eyes, is actually solidifying those deals and having a contract drawn up between Connect.Racing and our partner team,” states Baxter. “From there, that’s when this thing really kicks off because obviously, I don’t want to take money from a fan who expects one thing to happen and then something totally different happens.
“We just want to make sure that all of the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted from a legal perspective before we make a really big push and start spending advertising dollars to spread the news.”
What about that magical number that Connect.Racing looks to raise?
Baxter estimates that it costs $3-4 million to field a car capable of winning the race while also noting “those odds go up with every car on the team,” so the more money Connect.Racing raises, the greater the possibility for success. Furthermore, while the odds are long, the group is still targeting 2020 as their initial foray into the Indianapolis 500.
“Definitely, our goal is 2020,” states Baxter. “There is some difficulty because there becomes a drop-dead date when things actually need to be paid for towards a ‘500,’ and that really starts in November the year before. That is when you are starting to procure assets and people and you begin filling out the entry form and all of these other things.
“So we are actively pushing for 2020, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that 2021 is more realistic.”
No matter how the next two years unfold for Baxter and his crew, Connect.Racing is real enough to command at least the attention of IndyCar fans and interested onlookers alike. Baxter has all of the traits the open-wheel fans enjoy in the States – American born, Indiana bred – and speaks eloquently with confidence and a plan.
Don’t be surprised if this stirs up a bit more news and interest by this time next year as the Xavier grad continues to put his head down and work towards that ultimate goal of reaching the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Header image by Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR.