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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.

Rosberg ready for close fight with Red Bull in Monaco

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Nico Rosberg is anticipating a close fight with Red Bull in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after Daniel Ricciardo dominated practice on Thursday.

Ricciardo finished six-tenths of a second clear of the field on the ultra-soft tire in FP2, making the most of the upgraded Renault power unit in his RB12 car.

Mercedes’ Rosberg arrived in Monaco as the championship leader and chasing a fourth straight win around the streets where he grew up.

“It’s great to be back on the streets of my home town here in Monaco, and also to see all the fans so close to us as we’re on track,” Rosberg said on Thursday after finishing third in FP2.

“It was a tricky start in to the weekend for us, though. The sessions were a bit messy, with quite a few Virtual Safety Car periods – but I was able to learn a lot on the longer runs we managed to do which was a positive. A big applause for all of the circuit marshals, who did a great job as always to clear the cars quickly.”

Rosberg was not surprised by Red Bull’s practice pace, believing it will create a close fight for pole position on Saturday before Sunday’s race.

“As expected, Red Bull look very strong here,” Rosberg said.

“We have some more homework to do during tonight and tomorrow to find some time – but I can’t wait for Saturday and the qualifying battle.

“It should be very close and very exciting, which is great for the sport.”

Indy Carb Day rolling notebook

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Rutherford's final laps. Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Ah, Carb Day. A busy and crazy day of action that is so much bigger than just the final hour of practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

It’ll be easier to round up all that’s happened to this point in chronological order, so we’ll do that below:

PRE-PRACTICE

8:00 a.m. ET: Historic cars took the track for laps. Pictures are better than words here, so here’s a taste of what was out.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

9:00 a.m. ET: The new Tatuus USF-17 car, the new car for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2017 and the base model for the eventual new Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires car, the PM-18 in 2018, was unveiled on the IMS Pagoda Plaza. A link to that release is here. More information will follow in the days to come. Additionally, the first race driver for that car has been confirmed in Dutchman Rinus VK.

9:30 a.m. ET: Honda has spoken. Sort of. After its particularly strong start to the month, Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr held court with the media at the HPD hospitality transporter. While St. Cyr noted the hard work that has gone into the month, nothing is satisfying unless Honda can actually win on Sunday.

Said St. Cyr, “I wouldn’t call it redemption. I would say we’ve had to work harder to catch up. To win the 100th is what we’re shooting for.”

10 a.m. ET: Chip was on the bricks. But on the infield side, not the track side. Chip Ganassi did his annual holding court with the media there.

10:15 a.m. ET: The field of 33 posed for their annual class photo. All but one was on time, with Alex Tagliani casually late to temporarily halt the proceedings. A round of applause and laughter occurred when Tagliani arrived. He’ll start 33rd and last on Sunday in the No. 35 Alfe Heat Treating Honda for A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

10:35 a.m. ET: Sam Schmidt took laps in his modified ARROW Electronics Corvette, ahead of the Carb Day practice. It was cool to witness it again.

10:45 a.m. ET: Johnny Rutherford took laps in the 2017 Camaro SS 50th Anniversary Edition with a tribute lap ahead of the practice session. He’ll retire from being the pace car driver after this year’s Indianapolis 500.

10:50 a.m. ET: Two quick awards and other notes from pit lane before the session. The annual Jim Chapman Award for excellence in motorsports public relations went to Honda PR aces T.E. McHale and Dan Layton, while Dale Coyne Racing’s Tim Whiting won the Clint Brawner Award, an honor for chief mechanics.

Among those present on pit lane are a couple of Gateway Motorsports Park officials, who are exploring the weekend. The track has expressed interest in a potential return for a Verizon IndyCar Series race in 2017, and the track was rumored as a last-ditch, eleventh hour replacement for Boston.

FINAL PRACTICE

11:00 a.m.: Final practice began with ambient temperatures of 76 degrees and track temperatures of 92 degrees Fahrenheit, per Firestone Racing. Only a half hour earlier the temperatures were 73 and 84.

Oil on the track caused a delay in the session and an early yellow flag. INDYCAR officials would add 10 minutes to the session, originally scheduled to end at noon, to now end it at 12:10 p.m. ET.

Per NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis, Marco Andretti lost time as the team changed steering arms. Meanwhile fellow NBCSN reporter Katie Hargitt also reported Conor Daly was back on track Friday after gearbox issues earlier in the week.

Just at 11:45 a.m., Pippa Mann crashed out of Turn 4. The driver of the No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda lost control through Turn 4 and had a mix of right rear and left front damage. It will force the Dale Coyne Racing crew to scramble to make repairs. She was checked, cleared and released from the infield care center.

More to follow as the day progresses.

Kaltenborn confident of resolution to Sauber’s financial struggles

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Felipe Nasr of Brazil driving the (12) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sauber Formula 1 chief Monisha Kaltenborn is confident that the team’s ongoing financial struggles can be resolved in the near future.

The past couple of years have seen Sauber face an uncertain future due to its ongoing financial problems, with staff facing a delay in payment earlier this year.

The team failed to attend the recent test following the Spanish Grand Prix, sparking further concerns, but Kaltenborn is hopeful that a resolution can be found soon.

“Yes, we have certain challenges and we are working very hard to overcome the situation and I’m confident that we’ll resolve it shortly,” Kaltenborn said.

“We are working on that since a while now and we also know that we need that. If you look at today’s Formula 1 environment to be strong as an independent team you need to have a strong partners.

“So we have always been open to that and now we are pursuing our chances and we hope to resolve that soon.”

Kaltenborn elaborated on the challenge facing Sauber at the moment, saying how F1 has become more difficult for independent teams in recent years.

“I think Formula 1 has changed a lot,” she said.

“If you look at the times when Peter Sauber was team principal and I wouldn’t take the time when he returned as team principal in 2010 to the sport, but if I look at the time before, it was a very different sport and a very different kind of business with a very different financial set-up and sporting set-up.

“So I don’t think you can really compare the times. Challenges for private teams like ours have become bigger, year-by-year, particularly also due to the rule changes which have made things in the last few years far more expensive, if you look at the power train itself but also with regard to the distribution of income.

“There was a time when teams were not getting 50 per cent but even less, but yet the economic environment was much better, where you could get far more sponsors.

“So I don’t think it’s really that easy to compare the times, it doesn’t just have to do with people or the situation within the team, but the overall surroundings we were in.”

Dutchman Rinus VK is first confirmed driver for new USF-17

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Photo: Rinus VK Racing
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You saw the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis get unveiled this morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now meet the first driver.

Dutchman Rinus VK (Van Kalmthout) will step into the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series next year. He tested last November at Circuit of The Americas.

The full release is below:

Dutch karting sensation Rinus VK announced today that he will be making the move to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2017. The 15-year old made the announcement at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway in conjunction with the launch of the new Tatuus USF-17 car, which will be introduced for the 2017 USF2000 season.

IMG_0368_BLK“I am so excited about coming to the U.S. and racing in USF2000 next year,” commented the teenager, who is also on Holland’s premier driver development program called KNAF Talent First. “Every time I’ve come to the U.S., I love it more and more, and I think moving to the Mazda Road to Indy is the perfect step for me. The INDYCAR ladder is definitely the right place to be.”

2017 will not only be Rinus’ first season racing in the U.S., it will also be his first season of open-wheel racing. He does however have extensive karting experience competing in the North American based U.S. Rotax Max Challenge, and also sampled two USF2000 cars last year at the Circuit of the Americas during the Chris Griffis Memorial test, where he posted the third fastest time overall.

Rinus will spend the next few months racing in the European Karting Championships, which will be followed by off-season testing in the new Tatuus USF-17, which he hopes to kick off in early October. Rinus plans to test with several teams to figure out where the best home for him will be for the 2017 season.

“I’m looking forward to starting testing,” said Rinus, who finished runner-up in both the European and U.S. Rotax Max Senior Championships last year. “I know the level next year will be very strong with the new car, so I want to test with as many teams as possible to learn about them and learn about the car.”