SBJ/20100308/This Week's News

IRL hopes sales efforts result in bigger fields

When the Indy Racing League drops the green flag this week in Brazil, the sport’s sanctioning body hopes to have anywhere from 22 to 25 cars participating in the season opener.

One of the chief knocks against the sport has been car counts in the teens. The more cars a series has, the healthier the sport — or at least that’s the general consensus.

The IRL has even begun to shift more of its sales efforts to help the teams obtain sponsorship, with the hope that car counts will continue to grow.

“We always say, ‘Healthy teams, healthy league,’ and we’ve got to walk that walk,” said Greg Gruning, the IRL’s vice president of sales. “You build relationships when you sell sponsorships, but we’ve also got to build relationships with the teams and do what you say you’re going to do.”

There’s often a healthy level of distrust in racing between any sanctioning body and its teams because both are in the business of seeking sponsorship. Breaking down that distrust has been among Gruning’s chief goals in his three years with the league.

Bit by bit, Gruning has put certain tools in place to share information with the teams, and 2010 represents the first full year with all of these tools in place.

Some are measurement tools, like data from league research partners Image Impact and Experian Simmons. Image Impact measures exposure, while Experian Simmons gauges consumer behavior. That and other information from the IRL’s own sponsor pitches is available to the teams through a password-protected Web portal.

“It’s not static information,” Gruning said. “It’s fresh and changing, and sharing that with the teams helps all of us keep moving in the same direction.”

Dan Griffis, vice president of business development at Chip Ganassi Racing, said the IRL’s outreach to the teams “helps because there is some pretty good information. It’s something that hasn’t been provided in the past and it helps communicate value back to the sponsors. … You see the IRL guys coming to more of the teams’ hospitality events, asking questions, and that’s good.”

The IRL also is inviting more team executives and sponsors to its other events, like the Disney Ride & Drive, which allows sponsors to drive an IndyCar Series car, and bNet, the IRL’s business-to-business council. Those events and meetings had previously been reserved for league sponsors only.

Mark Sibla, the IRL’s manager of team business development, was brought on last year to work with the teams, another indication of the league’s commitment, Gruning said.

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