SBJ/June 20 - 26, 2005/Other News

Patrick’s popularity converting into IRL ratings, ticket sales

The Indy Racing League and its television partners continue to reap the benefits of “Danica Mania.”

Danica Patrick, the 23-year-old rookie who has quickly become the league’s most recognizable driver, has had a major effect on both ratings and attendance since dominating headlines during the buildup to last month’s Indy 500.

Patrick has gone from IRL rookie to larger-than-life personality in a matter of weeks.
The series visits Richmond International Raceway this weekend, and Matt Becherer, the track’s senior director of marketing and sales, said last week that RIR had sold 1,000 more tickets than at the same point last year. He expects last year’s record attendance, estimated around 50,000, to be topped during Saturday night’s SunTrust Indy Challenge. Tickets range from $30 to $35.

That would come on the heels of another record-breaking performance June 11 at Texas Motor Speedway. The Bombardier Learjet 500k, broadcast on ESPN, garnered a 1.0 rating, the highest-rated IRL race in ESPN history. Prior to that, ESPN’s previous highest-rated IRL telecast was 2004’s season-opening race from Homestead-Miami Speedway, which averaged a 0.9.

Despite being a record, the 1.0 equates to only about 880,000 households, a number more familiar to the NHL than to NASCAR, the IRL’s biggest competitor. But thanks largely to the prerace promotion around Patrick, who finished 13th, it was a 150 percent increase from last year’s 0.4.

Last month’s Indy 500 on ABC drew a 6.5 rating, a 59 percent increase over last year’s 4.1 and the first time since 2001 that the race drew more households than NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.

Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage wouldn’t comment on race attendance, but it has been estimated that 102,000 people attended, an increase of some 8,000 from last year.

In addition to hanging a giant, 20-by-40-foot mural of Patrick on a 10-story sign along I-35, the racetrack increased its advertising budget to capitalize on her success. On top of its initial $1 million media spend, TMS placed $100,000 of Patrick-specific ads with local print and radio outlets.

“We wanted to be careful not to ignore the other guys,” Gossage said, “but you don’t get offered an opportunity like this very often.”

To promote this weekend’s race, Richmond International has distributed a Patrick poster to 65 Virginia Fas Mart stores, a track partner that also sells tickets to various racing events. Giant fliers tout this weekend’s event as Patrick’s first trip to the raceway.

Like the Texas racetrack, Richmond included Patrick in last-minute advertising. But instead of entirely new creative, the Virginia track tweaked its ads to include Patrick, at an additional cost that Becherer described as “minimal.” The radio, print and TV campaign is running in Richmond, Washington, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va.

The track revamped its Web site, and Keith Green, director of public relations, sent out Patrick-specific press kits to media in nearby cities such as Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Charlotte; and Winston-Salem, N.C.

The message: RIR is the closest opportunity for Eastern fans to see Patrick — and the rest of the IRL, too, of course.

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