SBJ/May 24 - 30, 2004/Marketingsponsorship

Padding the Indianapolis 500 field isn’t the answer for the IRL

When the starting lineup roars under the green flag in the 88th Indianapolis 500 on May 30, there may be a few empty patches of asphalt at the back of the pack. Thirty-three cars have started the Indy 500 every year since 1948. At press time, however, 26 cars were entered in the race, leaving a shortfall of seven cars due to lack of sponsorship.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway president and Indy Racing League founder Tony George is doing everything possible to squeeze out a few more cars for race day, surely with the encouragement of TV rights holder ABC.

It is likely that George will dig up enough cars to fill the grid. But does fluffing up the field help the IRL and the Indy 500?

The answer is no.

The sponsorship market has spoken. There are not enough companies that see adequate value in the 2004 Indy 500 to join Marlboro, 7-Eleven, Pennzoil and others as major team sponsors.

Ten years ago, Indy Car racing (meaning the defunct CART series plus the United States Auto Club-sanctioned Indy 500) had more fans, TV viewers, sponsorship money and news coverage than NASCAR. It experienced the fastest free fall of any popular sport in American history.

How could that have happened?

CART was a national touring series influenced by wealthy team owners who wanted Indy Car racing in the United States to be modeled after the expensive and high-tech Formula One series. Every year, CART teams comprised most of the entries of the Indianapolis 500.

The race, and the speedway, are owned by George’s family. George felt that the fortunes of the Indy 500 were in the hands of the CART teams, not his family.

George wanted to have more influence over the teams and the rules that governed the sport. He was supported by USAC team owners and executives who believed that Indy Car racing should be composed of American drivers racing less exotic, cheaper cars.

The clash damaged fan and sponsor interest in Indy Car racing. The final blow — some would say the new beginning — came in 1996 when George founded the Indy Racing League.

Since its founding, the IRL has battled for attention on a crowded sports-entertainment stage against the backdrop of a poor economy, the rise of NASCAR and a fickle fan base. Success has come in small steps.

But the IRL’s supporters feel that the raw materials are in place.

Valvoline is a longtime motorsports sponsor. Senior vice president Jim Rocco said: “Valvoline has found strong return-on-investment with our NASCAR program. But the Indy 500 is still one of the premier motorsports events in the world. From our perspective, Indy has not been tarnished by the controversy.”

Valvoline decreased its Indy Car sponsorship in the late 1990s but maintains smaller ties.

Two pieces still missing are star drivers and national sponsor investment.

Regarding sponsorship, artificially filling the field at the Indy 500 may be a noble impulse, but it’s a bad idea.

Starting fewer than 33 cars at Indy this year would be a self-confident statement that every car in the race is there because sponsors believe in it as a marketing platform. It validates those sponsors’ investments and invites other sponsors to take a look at the IRL.

Mel Poole (mpoole@sportsbusinessjournal.com) is president of consulting and marketing firm SponsorLogic.

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