Tsunehisa Okuno

NTT saw more than just a smart business opportunity to advance its global telecommunications company in a multiyear IndyCar Series entitlement agreement announced Jan. 15 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“It’s a passion,” said Tsunehisa Okuno, NTT executive vice president, head of global business (shown above). “There are several options, but what do you believe? That was the major drive.

“I’m talking from my heart. We need that passion and that energy.”

Okuno already sounded like a passionate race fan in explaining why one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, which grosses nearly $110 billion annually, was interested in exploring this partnership with INDYCAR, the sanctioning body for the NTT IndyCar Series.

(Also, read "Seven things you should know about NTT and INDYCAR.")

Both sides analyzed a multitude of details during the three-month process of consideration. NTT, which spends $4 billion annually on research and development, saw the benefit of advancing technology applications on different platforms.

But to close the deal, NTT had to know it shared the same passion with INDYCAR. That was most evident in a late-November meeting at NTT’s Tokyo headquarters. Mark Miles, president and CEO of Human & Company, owner of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and INDYCAR President Jay Frye were joined by American representatives of NTT DATA, an NTT subsidiary which has sponsored Chip Ganassi Racing cars and cultivated a positive relationship with the series. They met with Okuno and Jun Sawada, NTT president and CEO.

“We intensively thought about this, whether we should take this opportunity or not,” Okuno said. “After I got an email from (NTT DATA executive chairman) John McCain, we thought very seriously about the opportunity. Before they came to Tokyo, we had decided several things. But it was important to see their faces and listen to their words and whether we could share the same passion or not.

“What I focused on was listening to their words and how passionate they were and whether we had the same chemistry or not. That was the only point we needed to see when Mark and Jay flew to Tokyo.”

NTT agreed with McCain’s email assessment that INDYCAR was a “super opportunity to move forward,” Okuno said.

“We’re trying to move forward in international technology and this was very right timing, (McCain) was thinking,” Okuno said of the email. “Very frankly, it was whether I believe it or not. I believed this should be a huge opportunity to move forward along with INDYCAR.”

NTT will also be the official technology partner of INDYCAR, the NTT IndyCar Series, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.

Okuno previously had the opportunity to meet 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, the first Asian driver to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Sato’s passion for racing in the series resonated.

“I respect him,” Okuno said of Sato. “He drove into a new world, a frontier. He had to open his own way to go and he won the Indy 500. His remark was very special to me, that he saw something very special and totally different after he won the Indy 500.

“To me, it’s very special. My motivation as a business person with NTT is I want to make our business more global, more growing for the people and the company and the society. We needed that strong will and that passion.”

NTT DATA, with headquarters in Plano, Texas, initially expressed interested in doing more in the series when its chief financial officer, David Croxville, reached out to Chip Ganassi Racing executive Doug Duchardt. That led to a meeting with Miles and Frye during the weekend of the season-ending INDYCAR Grand Prix of Sonoma in mid-September.

“It really didn’t start talking about the larger opportunity until we went to Indy and met with them a second time to talk about kind of the art of the possible on what we could do from a technology standpoint,” Croxville said.

NTT DATA CEO Bob Pryor, who like Croxville attended last week’s announcement, admitted INDYCAR was one of the several options considered in this mission to advance parent company NTT.

“There was a lot of interest and enthusiasm certainly by us and others, but when you’re a company as big as us, there were lots of other competing opportunities for different ways of branding and promotion,” Pryor said. “It’s a significant commitment. It wasn’t whether we were excited or were we interested and was there an opportunity. It was competing with other potential initiatives for those same dollars. That’s why there was a little bit of uncertainty, the fact there were several things that were under very serious consideration at that point.

“It’s more than branding. It’s the ability to create new technologies and IP (intellectual property) to enhance the experience for the IndyCar Series, for the fans, for the other partners, that ability to create IP and apply our innovation technology and use cases that can be replicated across other industries and companies. That’s why the package of not just brand promotion but others is what really became so compelling.”

This partnership had to take on greater significance than just creating more awareness for the brand.

“What does our brand promise, what we stand for, who are we and where are we going?” Pryor said. “That’s important. There’s another part of kind of applying that technology directly to the sport. But recognize, too, one of our largest and most important industries is auto and suppliers. So we have a large industry, we have about 6,500 people that deliver services to the auto industry and about almost 2,600 of actual deep auto industry folks. It’s an important industry in and of itself.

“The other part is everything is moving to platforms that can be used across different industries and different solutions. It’s part of using our Smart technologies.”

Okuno, like Miles and Frye, is already eagerly looking ahead.

“We’re just starting,” Okuno said. “This is just the beginning.”

And Okuno, who was presented with a commemorative NTT IndyCar Series helmet at the announcement, was already asking about the opportunity to enjoy a two-seater Indy car ride.

“My dream is maybe not to be in the actual race, but if I have the chance to go through in a race car (in a two-seater ride),” Okuno said. “I could use this helmet, right?”