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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.

VIDEO: Ricciardo forces shoey upon Gerard Butler, turns on Texan accent

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Actor Gerard Butler does a shoey on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing after Daniel finished third in the race during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo may have been disappointed to lose second place in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix after a badly-timed Virtual Safety Car period, but that didn’t stop the Red Bull driver offering some entertainment on the podium.

Ricciardo made a rocket start to run second behind Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton early on at the Circuit of The Americas, with championship leader Nico Rosberg struggling to keep up in third.

Mercedes rolled the dice with Rosberg’s strategy, only to get a free pit stop under VSC when Ricciardo’s temamate, Max Verstappen, suffered a gearbox failure.

Rosberg jumped up to second in the process, much to Ricciardo’s frustration.

Ricciardo eventually crossed the line third, marking his sixth podium finish in the last eight races and tightening his grip on P3 in the drivers’ championship.

The podium interviews were conducted by actor Gerard Butler, who had Ricciardo’s infamous ‘shoey’ forced upon him, only with Red Bull in place of champagne.

“Gerard told me he doesn’t drink alcohol, so we had to figure something out,” Ricciardo told NBCSN after the race.

“Then one of the boys threw Red Bull up. Much to his dismay, he did it.”

Ricciardo then turned on his Texan accent, something he had broken out intermittently over the COTA weekend after spending Wednesday working on an authentic local farm.

Ricciardo also broke it out when talking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton after the race, even quoting racing icon and star of Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby.

“I’m not sure what to do with my hands! My friend Ricky Bobby said- oh that’s too much!” Ricciardo said, before returning to his usual speaking voice.

“Yeah the VSC was frustrating. I expressed some frustration. It’s a good rule in many respects, but it hurts when it has that on you.

“Nico gained about 10 seconds on us. That’s an eternity in racing terms. Especially as it’s a Mercedes.

“That made it a bit stationary at the end. Even if he caught me he would have made it interesting. Cool place, cool podium, cool anthem. I live for that stuff.

“We had Nico’s pace. That’s encouraging. We’ll do what we can in the next few. Another big bag of points. Just me and Seb [Vettel] out there but we gained a little on Ferrari.”

Ricciardo then offered yet more science on the shoey, believing that the Red Bull energy drink will have eased the taste of his sweaty race boot after a 56-lap run at COTA.

“I didn’t try it! I smelt it. It smelt pretty good. Red Bull has a strong flavor. It killed the bad stuff,” Ricciardo said.

“My foot wasn’t that sweaty. Gerard had a small coronary on the podium, but he recovered.”

Never change, Danny Ric.

Max Verstappen named F1 Driver of the Day for USGP despite DNF

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen has been voted Driver of the Day for the United States Grand Prix despite retiring from the race due to a gearbox failure.

Verstappen qualified fourth in Austin before a poor start saw him slip behind Kimi Raikkonen during the opening stages at the Circuit of The Americas

The Red Bull driver took the position back before closing in on Nico Rosberg through the second stint of the race, but retired soon after due to a gearbox issue.

Nevertheless, Verstappen has won the online fan vote for Austin, the result being announced on F1’s official Twitter account on Sunday night.

Grosjean secures point in Haas F1 Team’s home Grand Prix

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1 walks in the Paddock after practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – After an eight-race scoring “drought” since the Austrian Grand Prix, the 10th race of the season, Haas F1 Team broke its longest pointless scoring streak to date with a welcome and perhaps surprising return to the points in today’s United States Grand Prix in Austin from Circuit of The Americas.

Although Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez started only 17th and 14th respectively in the pair of Haas VF-16 Ferraris, they both made it to the fringes of the top 10 early before resuming in their sometimes eternal position of 11th.

Gutierrez fell out after Lap 17 with an apparent brake failure, but Grosjean pressed on the rest of the race. Once Kimi Raikkonen retired in one of the factory Ferraris after one of his tires hadn’t been secured properly, that promoted Grosjean into 10th and a World Championship point, a welcome result in his 100th Grand Prix start.

Grosjean noted that after a tough weekend for the team, down on downforce and with some aero parts breaking off on Friday, the point was a welcome result.

“It didn’t go too bad. Bit of a messy first lap. We did an aggressive strategy. It worked pretty well,” Grosjean told NBCSN’s Will Buxton.

“I’m lucky a few cars retired in front of us. We needed to finish the race. Great to score points in front of the home crowd. It’s been a long time since we’ve scored points!”

After the run of 11th-place finishes, Grosjean said scoring points late was a huge confidence booster for the team.

“Yeah it’s a great thing to score points at the end of the season,” he said. “It means a lot for how we’ve worked. Yesterday he’s not so happy after the performance we had but today he is. Gene’s mother, his sister, and there are a lot of people here. Now I have to watch Talladega and see how our boys are doing in NASCAR!”

Gutierrez, who retired early, was still diplomatic and thankful for the weekend experience.

“Yes it was (brake failure). We think one of the discs broke,” Gutierrez told NBCSN’s Will Buxton. “It’s not what we wanted for a race weekend. Not easy to accept either. Difficult start of the weekend and it was not going to be easy. We went on.

“We did a great qualifying, optimizing what we had. We pushed to the maximum. We got into the top 10 the first few laps. Aggressive strategy. At some point I lost the brakes. Fortunately I didn’t run into the barrier (at Turn 11).

“It’s very disappointing but we have to continue focusing on the positives. I want to thank everyone for the enthusiasm and support all weekend. I’m sorry for all of you who were here to support us and ensure we are doing our best.”

Gutierrez now heads to his home of Mexico City next week, where he’ll race in his first Mexican Grand Prix.

Rosberg content with damage limitation in Austin, finishing second

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP on the grid before the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg was content with his drive to second place in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, ensuring his Formula 1 drivers’ championship lead over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton remains healthy.

Rosberg arrived in Austin leading the drivers’ championship by 33 points, enjoying the luxury of being able to finish second in the remaining four races of the season and still win the title.

The German qualified second behind Hamilton at the Circuit of The Americas on Saturday, and opted to slot in behind his teammate through the first corner.

This allowed Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo to dive up the inside, taking second place through the esses and leaving Rosberg with a mountain to climb.

Mercedes opted to put Rosberg on medium tires for his second stint, causing him to come under pressure from Max Verstappen behind, but then gained a place from Ricciardo after pitting under the Virtual Safety Car.

Taking what essentially was a free pit stop saw Rosberg file out five seconds clear of Ricciardo in second, where he remained to the end of the race, finishing four seconds down on Hamilton up front.

“Lost it at the start. In the end I came back,” Rosberg said of his race on the podium after the race.

“Second place is OK, damage limitation. I wanted to win in America, would have been awesome, but it wasn’t to be. I was going for it. Flat out. All the way to the end.”

The result marks Rosberg’s first defeat in a race to Hamilton since the German Grand Prix at the end of July, and leaves the points difference at 26 points with three races to go.

Rosberg can afford to finish second twice and third once and still win the title, but will undoubtedly be keen to boost his points advantage to prevent the title fight going down to the wire in Abu Dhabi on November 27.

Mathematically, Rosberg can wrap up the title in Mexico next weekend should he win the race and Hamilton retire or fail to score.