SBJ/June 26 - July 2, 2000/Marketingsponsorship

Finally at Indianapolis Motor Speedway: F-1 racing

In less than three months, Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Tony George will realize a vision that began nearly a decade ago: bringing Formula One racing to his track.

Perhaps more surprising to industry skeptics is the fact that the race stands to deliver a top-notch box-office performance. Fans have already snapped up 200,000 reserved seats for the Sept. 24 race, known as the United States Grand Prix. That's a long way from the previous Formula One event held in America, the 1991 U.S. Grand Prix at Phoenix. That race drew a scant 5,000 paid attendance.

"I just felt that it would be good to have Formula One racing at Indy," said George, president and CEO at IMS. "This is known as the racing capital of the world. We have the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400 with NASCAR, so Formula One makes sense here. We're a world-class facility, and that means hosting world-class events."

George, 40, has put his money where his mouth is.

The Indianapolis track has spent an estimated $40 million on Grand Prix-related projects. A new road course, pit suites and improved media area are making their debut this year. A few Formula One team owners and drivers who have seen the upgrades in recent weeks offered rave reviews.

The race got another boost this month when the track signed its first-ever title sponsor for an event. SAP AG, a German computer software company, signed on as the F-1 race's title sponsor in a multiyear deal estimated to be worth $3 million to $6 million annually. SAP also sponsors the McLaren Racing team on the F-1 circuit.

"With Formula One comes certain standards," George said, alluding to the track improvements. "They are accustomed to having things done in a certain fashion, and we are working very hard to accommodate that. This is an important event."

The sponsorship and strong ticket sales are even more important for the track than usual because the track receives no television revenue from the race. Instead, FINA, F-1's sanctioning body, gets the TV money.

The race is scheduled to be broadcast by Speedvision and replayed on Fox Sports Net.

"As it stands today, we don't benefit from having the broadcast rights domestically or internationally for Formula One," George said. "We would like to have a role [in the future] in making sure the broadcasts are successful here."

Beyond F-1, George is enthusiastic about the Indy Racing League as well as the speedway's NASCAR ties with the Brickyard 400 and a stake in a new Chicago track. Last month's Indy 500 drew more attention from fans and media than in any year since open-wheel racing's rift began five years ago. Juan Montoya, the Indy 500 winner, and teammate Jimmy Vasser became the first drivers from rival Championship Auto Racing Teams to compete in the Indy race since the split.

"Maybe I'm too close to it, but I think we've had some great racing through all the years," George said. "A lot of things contributed to our success this year. Target/Ganassi [owner of the Montoya and Vasser teams] created interest, the return of Al Unser Jr., and having Sarah Fisher, a 19-year-old, contributed, too. There were a lot of things that went right."

George said there is little more to be said about the IRL-CART competition beyond the fact that both series must focus on doing what's best for the sport's health. The IRL has made good progress, "but we need to do a better job of telling our story," he said. "The media has the ability to influence the sport and public opinion, but we need to get the message out from us. You have to keep it all in perspective."

Earlier this month, CART president and CEO Andrew Craig submitted his resignation and was replaced on an interim basis by former driver and current team owner Bobby Rahal. One of Rahal's main goals is reconciling the open-wheel circuits.

As for NASCAR, George said one of the biggest reasons for stock car racing's ascension over open-wheel racing is its consistent crops of new talent. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth are the latest examples, and three-time champ Jeff Gordon is all of 28.

"That hurt us a little bit in open-wheel," he said. "When the torch was passed from the A.J. Foyts and the Mario Andrettis, there weren't a lot of people there to take over."

Erik Spanberg can be reached at espanberg@bizjournals.com.

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