SBJ/February 13-19, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

IndyCar moves beyond tragedy, targets growth

Four months after its championship race ended with a tragic crash that killed driver Dan Wheldon, Izod IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard is optimistic the sport will bounce back in 2012.

Izod IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard cites new business such as Discover’s deal to be the official credit card provider.
KRISTINA PAUMEN / LIMELIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
“I’m predicting our attendance will be up 15 percent,” said Bernard, who today will deliver a state-of-the-sport address in Indianapolis. “We have a better marketing strategy and schedule than we did last year. Our goal is to increase our TV viewership by 15 percent, as well.”

Bernard said that IndyCar has stayed out of the media since last October out of deference to the Wheldon family. It spent the last several months talking to drivers and gathering ideas for how to make the sport safer. It also dealt with a schedule that was thrown into disarray as events scheduled for oval tracks in Texas, Las Vegas and California were reconsidered by both the series and the tracks.

A 2012 race in Las Vegas, which was expected to be announced right after the 2011 race, was canceled after the IndyCar Series bought its way out of a multiyear contract at the facility. The race at Texas Motor Speedway was eventually scheduled for June 9 and the race at Auto Club Speedway in California was confirmed for Sept. 15.

“[The Vegas crash] put a black cloud on us for a couple of months, but I think in everything in life there are going to be highs and lows,” Bernard said. “You’ve got to rise above it and continue to go on. The sport has been very committed and working very hard to be sure this season brings new and great competition and entertainment.”

The sport already has some early momentum on the sponsorship front. Today, it is expected to announce a new five-year agreement with Discover, which will develop a series credit card. It is the first partner the series has had in the category since 2006 when it had a deal for affinity cards with MBNA. Financial terms of the agreement weren’t available.

Discover will develop a series credit card.
INDYCAR
Discover signed on as the credit card provider for IndyCar with First National Bank of Omaha, which will issue a series of two IndyCar-themed credit cards. The company’s IndyCar branded card will offer fans a chance to redeem points for special offers like tandem car rides.

“We’ve expanded our sports portfolio over the last few years,” said Kevin O’Donnell, vice president of credit issuance at Discover, who added that the company sponsors the Bowl Championship Series, Orange Bowl and the NHL. “IndyCar is a very unique organization. There’s obviously a business relationship but we’re partnering with them to help them reward their fan base, and we’ll process their (fans’) transactions, which obviously benefits us.”

In addition to Discover, IndyCar signed Fuzzy’s Vodka, renewed its agreement with tiremaker Firestone and signed a new merchandising agreement with retailer Lids.

The Lids deal, which was announced last week, will put IndyCar merchandise in more than 1,000 retail outlets nationwide. The company also will take over management of IndyCar’s online merchandise sales.

Bernard said that sponsorship revenue is on track to increase 5 percent from a year ago, and he expects that percentage to rise as more deals are signed during the season.
“That’s huge for us,” Bernard said. “We have great momentum on sponsorship.”

Last year, IndyCar focused much of its marketing efforts on its championship at the end of the season. It created a special promotion offering a driver from another series $5 million if the driver won the final IndyCar race of the season at Las Vegas. Bernard answered questions throughout the year about whether or not he’d heard from NASCAR or Formula One drivers interested in the race. When no outside driver took the challenge, Bernard brought on GoDaddy as the presenting sponsor of a special promotion that put Wheldon at the back of the field in Las Vegas and gave him a chance to split $5 million with a race fan if he won. The publicity stunt was questioned after Wheldon’s death.

Bernard said that this year the sport won’t have a seasonlong marketing effort akin to last year’s promotion. Instead, it will focus on telling the story of its new car and the entrance of new manufacturers, Lotus and Chevrolet. It also will concentrate on telling the story of its drivers, which Bernard believes will be easier to do now that Danica Patrick has left the sport in favor of NASCAR.

“I think Danica will do a tremendous amount for NASCAR, but I don’t think it’s a negative for us,” he said. “Sometimes I think her umbrella took some of the sunshine away from drivers like Dario (Franchitti) who should have been in the sun more. I really believe that.”

When Bernard said last year that he would quit his job if the last race of the season didn’t draw better than a 0.8 Nielsen rating, speculation arose that he might be looking for an exit from the sport he took over in 2010. That speculation only increased after the crash in Las Vegas. But Bernard reiterated that he had a five-year contract as CEO and said he has no plans of leaving any time soon.

“Some critics said I would quit,” he said. “Some said I would get fired. Some said IndyCar would be broke. I try not to listen to the critics. I have a five-year contract and gave the [Hulman] family my word. I don’t give up. I’m going to bust my butt every day to try and do what I came here to do, which is help IndyCar.”

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