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Racing sponsors now at a crossroads of performance, ratings and ethics

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The last several weeks have seen sponsor stories take over from on-track ones as the dominant players in the North American racing news.

NAPA, of course, has made the biggest announcement with its decision to leave Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the year, in the wake of the controversy at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season finale at Richmond. 5-Hour Energy, additionally, seems displeased with the action the organization has taken in a statement it has released.

Other sponsors are on the move, which is normal in racing, but noteworthy in their timing after Richmond. Valvoline leaves Roush Fenway Racing for Hendrick Motorsports; Jimmy John’s goes with driver Kevin Harvick from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Castrol made the jaw-dropping decision earlier this year to leave John Force Racing at the end of 2014 in NHRA after 29 years.

And then there is the report this morning that GoDaddy is re-evaluating its role as a primary sponsor in IndyCar with Michael Andretti’s team, citing low television ratings as the impetus for a potential move out of full-time primary sponsorship there.

It all adds up to a fascinating question: Which part of racing do sponsors prefer most? Is it on-track performance, ethics, or ratings?

To borrow a term from NASCAR President Mike Helton, the “ripple effect” of the last few weeks has changed the corporate game in a way we haven’t seen for quite a while. Sponsors often come-and-go from racing but it’s become increasingly apparent the Richmond saga has made a bigger impact on all forms of motorsport than we might have realized in the immediate aftermath.

If it’s on-track performance you crave, ideally, IndyCar would be the best bang for the buck. It costs substantially less – think in the $4 to 8 million range – for a season-long sponsorship (by comparison to $15 to $20 million in NASCAR). A sponsor can advertise itself at the Indianapolis 500, the largest single-day sporting event in North America, and have the chance to win a variety of different circuits.

That said, the marketing and promotional aspect of the variety apparently does not justify the ROI as it stands now. Roger Penske, for instance, has had to put together a consortium of sponsors to field Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe’s cars since Philip Morris tobacco money exited at the end of 2010 (livery was withdrawn at the end of 2009). Elsewhere around the grid, teams have become increasingly reliant on drivers bringing sponsorship to secure a seat. There’s still plenty of talent on the grid, but the days of fully-funded rides without bringing a dollar are drawing to an end.

NASCAR, meanwhile, can offer better TV ratings on the whole, with the performance aspect secondary. It’s why Danica Patrick, for instance – long seen by this writer and others as a good-but-not-great driving talent who has made most of her career via marketing – can afford to run 25th to 30th place every week, but maintain the GoDaddy support for the awareness and buzz she creates off-track.

Now, though, NASCAR faces an ethics crisis the likes of which it has rarely seen. If NAPA’s departure is the tip of the iceberg in terms of corporate America withdrawing its dollars, it could create another “ripple effect” – to borrow Helton’s words again – where more sponsors depart and hundreds of families see jobs go away. That might be an extreme way of looking at it, but it is certainly possible if sponsors don’t see the value in the tens of millions of dollars invested and the PR too damaging to their brands.

A good take from the Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass, linked here, suggests NASCAR needs to implement a “grand plan” to soothe sponsors and their concerns. Pockrass notes there are elements where NASCAR is already involved in direct communication with sponsors – notably via Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps – but that needs to expand in the wake of the Richmond controversy.

As a fan, you want to see sponsors – regardless of series – do the job of activating and creating a connection that spurs you to root for said sponsor and buy more of their product. As a sponsor, you ideally want to be successful in all three aspects of performance, awareness and moral standards.

Depending on the fallout the rest of 2013 as it relates to sponsor movement, we’ll see which of the three takes precedence in the motorsports landscape.

Hamilton: ‘Incredible’ to surpass Schumacher’s Hungary win tally

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Lewis Hamilton of Greatc Britain and Mercedes GP lifts the trophy on the podium after winning the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton finds it “incredible” to have surpassed seven-time Formula 1 world champion Michael Schumacher’s number of Hungarian Grand Prix victories after taking a fifth win in Budapest on Sunday.

Hamilton arrived in Hungary tied with Schumacher on four victories at the Hungaroring, his first success at the track coming in his debut season in 2007.

Further wins in 2009, 2012 and 2013 drew him level with Schumacher before a dominant display on Sunday saw him beat Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg to stand alone on five wins.

“It’s pretty incredible to hear those words, especially when you think I grew up watching Michael,” Hamilton said when informed of the record.

“So to now have had similar, if not one more, than he had here, is just incredible.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the great people I’ve worked with, both at McLaren-Mercedes and now here. It’s a result of great work from such a large group of people.

“I’m really just a chink in the chain. I love it here. I hope there’s more to come before I stop.

“It was not the easiest grand prix I’ve had here in the ten years, nine, ten years – but definitely one I enjoyed.”

RC Enerson joins a list of those Coyne have provided IndyCar debut

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For RC Enerson, the opportunity to debut in this week’s Honda Indy 200 with Dale Coyne Racing means the 19-year-old out of New Port Richey, Fla. will join a decent list of those who’ve started with Coyne and then gone on to bigger and better things in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

He’ll make his debut in the team’s trademark No. 19 Honda next week.

Enerson first hailed the Mazda Road to Indy, where he spent the last five seasons (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda from 2012 to 2014, then Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2015 and partial 2016), for helping prepare him to be the driver he is now.

“The Mazda Road to Indy takes a ton of credit for that,” Enerson told NBC Sports. “The whole ladder system is designed to help you get here. The experience is invaluable. It’s such a great program; it brought me all the way up. We’re to the end of it and they deserve a lot of credit with their preparations, with being at IndyCar events, so you’re going to these huge events in a feeder series. It prepares you really well.”

He then thanked the Coyne team for their immediate ease to work with as he prepares for his debut, alongside teammate Conor Daly in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda.

“The team is awesome. I love this team,” he said.

“The vibe around the whole team is just amazing. There’s not a lot of pressure on me. They basically came in and said, ‘You’re not expected to set the world on fire.’

“But today we made great use of our time. It was great to not only test, but be able to make changes to the car and make setup tweaks.

“We learned a lot of valuable information that will help us for our debut.”

So how does Enerson fit into the rookies-at-Dale Coyne history books?

Here’s a look at the most recent rookies who have made their series debut with Coyne, since the IndyCar/Champ Car merger at the start of 2008:

  • 2015: Rocky Moran Jr.* (Long Beach), Rodolfo Gonzalez (Barber)
  • 2014: Carlos Huertas (St. Petersburg)
  • 2013: James Davison (Mid-Ohio), Stefan Wilson (Baltimore)
  • 2011: James Jakes (St. Petersburg)
  • 2008: Mario Moraes (Homestead)

*Daly also made his first IndyCar road or street course start with Coyne at Long Beach last year, deputizing for the injured Rocky Moran Jr., who was due to debut at the street race last year.

Other notables who have debuted for Coyne include NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy (1991, Long Beach) and other racing veterans Ryan Dalziel (2005, Toronto), Darren Manning (2002, Rockingham) and Andre Lotterer (2002, Mexico City).

Townsend Bell, Tracy’s fellow NBCSN IndyCar analyst, also ran in a Coyne-crewed but Patrick Racing-entered No. 19 car at two European oval races in 2001, his first two IndyCar starts.

Manor: Keeping Haryanto in F1 line-up still ‘plan A’

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Rio Haryanto of Indonesia and Manor Racing in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Manor racing director Dave Ryan says that keeping Rio Haryanto in its car for the second half of the Formula 1 season remains “plan A” despite the Indonesian’s search for funding.

Haryanto became Indonesia’s first F1 driver at the beginning of the season, making his debut with Manor in Australia after spending four years in GP2.

However, Haryanto only had funding to secure the seat until after the Hungarian Grand Prix, confirming in Budapest that he was still working on a deal to be in Germany this weekend.

“If you see me at Hockenheim, then I think that would secure the whole season,” Haryanto told reporters last week.

Speaking to Reuters, Manor F1 chief Dave Ryan confirmed that talks are ongoing with Haryanto’s management to ensure he remains in the car for the rest of the season.

“We’ve got Rio onboard and we’re working with Rio’s management and we’re doing everything we can to secure his drive for the rest of the year,” Ryan said.

Ryan did confirm that Manor has plans in place should talks break down and a replacement for Haryanto be required.

“We’ve got a plan B, we’ve got a plan C, we’ve got a plan D,” he said.

“Of course we have options and we have ideas.

“But plan A is to keep Rio in the car so that’s the intention.”

Besides its race line-up of Haryanto and Pascal Wehrlein, Manor also has 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi and GP2 race winner Jordan King on its books.

Rossi raced for Manor five times in 2015, becoming the first American grand prix driver in eight years before being dropped into a reserve role to make way for Haryanto and Wehrlein.

However, a return may prove difficult in the immediate future given his commitments in IndyCar in the no. 98 Andretti/Herta Autosport entry.

A report from motorsport.com over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend claims that McLaren junior Stoffel Vandoorne is an option to replace Haryanto, having made his F1 debut in Bahrain in place of the injured Fernando Alonso.

The entry list for this weekend’s German Grand Prix will be confirmed on Thursday, by which point a decision will need to have been taken by Manor.

Alonso content with set of P7 finishes in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso was happy to be the ‘best of the rest’ behind the three fastest teams over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend after finishing seventh in every session.

McLaren enjoyed its strongest qualifying performance of the season as Alonso and teammate Jenson Button made it through to Q3.

Although Button’s race was ruined early on by a brake issue, Alonso rose to sixth in the first stintt before falling behind Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen as the race wore on.

The two-time world champion was left to settle for seventh at the flag – curiously, also his finishing position in FP1, FP2, FP3 and qualifying.

“Well, P7 has been my position all weekend!” Alonso said.

“It’s a pity we couldn’t improve this afternoon but still I think we were best of the rest today.

“Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari are out of reach at the moment for everyone – they’re on another level – so, in the other mini-championship we’re racing in, we were quite competitive and I feel we delivered the maximum we could today.

“There wasn’t much action in the race though. For us, it was a little bit of a boring afternoon at some points – not the usual Hungaroring show – and the only retirement, unfortunately, was Jenson.

“I’m happy about how the weekend went and hopefully we can keep this up progress. We’ve been more or less competitive here and at Silverstone, on two very different circuits, so I’m looking forward to next weekend at Hockenheim.”