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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.

Merhi relishing F1 return in Abu Dhabi, but will it be his last?

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Roberto Merhi of Spain and Manor Marussia looks on at a press confernce during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Roberto Merhi is relishing his return to Formula 1 this weekend as he steps into the seat vacated by Alexander Rossi at Manor for the last race of the season.

Rossi joined Manor on a five-race deal in Singapore that would allow him to balance an F1 drive with commitments in GP2, where he looks set to finish the year as vice-champion.

Merhi was benched to allow Rossi to take the seat, but will return this weekend after missing the last three races due to the clash with GP2.

“I’m so excited to be back in the car this weekend for the season finale,” Merhi said. “As any reserve driver will tell you, I really missed the racing; it will be a long time yet before I’m ready to hang up my racing gloves for a full-time career in TV commentary!

“I’ve kept a close eye on everything the team has been doing over the past five races, so I don’t think it will be too difficult to get back up to speed on Friday and see how I stand versus Will [Stevens]. I’ve missed the competitive spirit between us.

“The most important thing is to do the best job possible for the team on Sunday, and ensure we have a result to celebrate.

“It has been a long, hard season, so I want to say thank you for this opportunity and I hope I can deliver another strong performance to reward the faith the team has shown in me.”

However, this looks set to be Merhi’s final F1 appearance for the time being at least. Just two seats remain on the grid for 2016 – both at Manor – but the Spaniard faces stiff competition from Rossi, Stevens and Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein for a role with the team.

Rossi and Stevens are both known to be better-funded than Merhi, while Wehrlein has been tipped for a seat thanks to Manor’s new technical partnership with Mercedes that comes into force for 2016.

Rosberg arriving in Abu Dhabi on “a massive high”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP walks in the paddock during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg has set his sights on rounding out the 2015 Formula 1 season with a third consecutive victory in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Despite failing to put up much of a challenge to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton for this year’s world championship, Rosberg has been the man to beat in recent races, claiming the last five pole positions and winning in Mexico and Brazil.

Rosberg saw his hopes of winning a maiden world championship end in Abu Dhabi last year after a mechanical failure on his car, but the German is hoping to make up for this by continuing his good form and taking a third straight win.

“I’ve had two really great weekends now in Mexico and Brazil, so I’m heading into the final race on a massive high,” Rosberg said.

“Abu Dhabi hasn’t always been an easy one for me. Of course, last year was probably my biggest disappointment – losing the title at the last moment with a mechanical problem.

“But I showed my speed there with pole position and I have good momentum behind me right now, so I’m aiming to end the season on a big positive this time around.”

This weekend’s race will mark the final outing for the Mercedes W06 Hybrid, which has claimed 15 wins and 17 pole positions so far this season.

Rosberg is keen to make the most of his final run with the car, but remains wary of the threat from Ferrari behind after the Italian marque ran Mercedes close in Brazil two weeks ago.

“Of course, it’s also the last race for this incredible Silver Arrow – and it deserves a spectacular send off,” Rosberg said. “Everyone at the factories has done such a fantastic job one again this year.

“A car like this is something every driver dreams of having in their hands, so I’ll be pushing hard to make the most of it for one last time as a tribute to all their hard work.

“Of course, it will be close as always with Lewis and we saw a big push from Ferrari in São Paulo, so it won’t be straightforward. But I’m up for a battle and hopefully we can put on a great show for the fans to end the year.”

What we’re thankful for in F1, IndyCar and more, 2015

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Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at MotorSportsTalk. Here’s some of the things we’re thankful for from the racing season, 2015. See more things we’re thankful across the board from at the #WhyImThankful hashtag.

Formula 1

  • The opportunity to crown a champion on U.S. soil. It hasn’t happened since 1982, and on October 25, 2015 it happened once again – the U.S. played host to the title-deciding round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas. Fittingly, Lewis Hamilton clinched his third title on his adopted “second home.”
  • Sebastian Vettel starring at Ferrari. The German made his move at the right time to get out of Red Bull and into Ferrari. From a personal perspective, I don’t think I appreciated him at Red Bull as much as I do now at Ferrari. He poked the bear that was the Mercedes AMG Petronas pairing of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as much as possible in press conferences, and helped bring Ferrari back to the top of the podium after a challenging 2014 for the team.
  • An American driver makes his debut. It was only five races, but getting to see Alexander Rossi finally make his debut after years of trying, and a few failed opportunities in 2014, was long overdue. Rossi completed a near perfect run of events, beating Manor teammate Will Stevens in four of five starts, and posting a near-points run to 12th at COTA. He also posted a series of guest blogs here on MST throughout the fall.
  • Haas F1 Team confirms a solid first-year lineup. While neither Romain Grosjean nor Esteban Gutierrez was a surprise announcement once confirmed, both will be solid fits for Gene Haas and Guenther Steiner’s Haas F1 Team in 2016. Grosjean gives the team a proven podium finisher who’s made genuine strides over his career, and Gutierrez is an underrated driver with Ferrari ties, solid Mexican support, and more pace than you realize.
  • #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBeIn a year when nearly nothing has gone right for McLaren Honda, this did. Thank you, Internet, for once.


  • A dramatic title finale. Blame double points all you want for perhaps altering the outcome, but you can’t deny the intensity and excitement was there as Scott Dixon toppled Juan Pablo Montoya in the season finale at Sonoma. There was little between the two throughout the year; either would have been a worthy champion but Dixon is a good one.
  • A fantastic finish at Indy. Montoya lost the season-long war, but won the battle in a thrilling three-way bout with Dixon and Will Power at this year’s Indianapolis 500.
  • Newgarden finally wins. It was a question of when, not if, rising American star Josef Newgarden would win his first race (or races) in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Courtesy of a dominant performance at Barber Motorsports Park, he finally did. A second win, at Toronto, joined for good measure.
  • The racing family’s support for the Wilson family. In the most tragic moment of the IndyCar season, following the loss of Justin Wilson at Pocono Raceway, the community rallied together in the auction to raise more than $600,000 for the Wilson Children’s Fund.

Red Bull GRC

  • A great comeback from Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross. Down but not out, Scott Speed, Tanner Foust and the entire Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team rallied from a nightmare start to the campaign to emerge as championship contenders, and ultimately champions, by year’s end.
  • Increased IndyCar team presence. Veteran squads like Olsbergs MSE, Hoonigan Racing Division and Subaru WRT were joined by an onslaught of IndyCar squads in 2015. Andretti, Chip Ganassi Racing, SH Rallycross and Bryan Herta Rallysport brought seven cars to the Supercar grid in 2015, to make up more than half the lineup.

Around the rest of the non-NASCAR motorsports world

  • Mazda Road to Indy: As usual, some young rising drivers stood out in 2015, even beyond champions Spencer Pigot, Santiago Urrutia and Nico Jamin.
  • IMSA: Better racing, less kvetching, BoP not being as much of a storyline (it still was at times, but not all the time), improved processes and an increase in quality personnel – as well as new title sponsor WeatherTech for 2016 and beyond – contributed to a vastly improved 2015 second season of the-then TUDOR United SportsCar Championship compared to a rocky first season in 2014.
  • Pirelli World Challenge: The influx of quality GT3 cars and teams made what was already a strong top GT class even better; a management shakeup at year’s end also seems to have pleased most of the paddock as PWC prepares for 2016.
  • FIA World Endurance Championship: Great racing at most events, the emergence of Porsche’s newest factory aces Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber as overall winners at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Patrick Dempsey winning a race, Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler scoring a podium on Le Mans debut, and other bits and pieces throughout the year made the WEC campaign an enjoyable one.
  • NHRA: Antron Brown and Erica Enders-Stevens proving how badass they are en route to Top Fuel and Pro Stock titles. Also, thanks to Gary Gerould for his incredible 37-year-run on the mic – my colleague Daniel McFadin’s interview with the retiring Gerould is linked here.

Zach Veach confirmed with Belardi to start 2016 Indy Lights season

Photo: Belardi Auto Racing
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Two-year Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series veteran Zach Veach will return to the series in 2016 following a year’s hiatus. At the moment, it’s for the start of the season only but with the intended plan of making it a full-season effort.

The young American joins the Belardi Auto Racing team, which he narrowly lost out to in his last full-time campaign in 2014 when he finished third in the points.

Veach, who turns 21 next month, is Brian Belardi’s first confirmed driver for the 2016 season. Perhaps one of the single most experienced drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy, Veach has been on all three rungs (Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000) since 2010 and spent 2015 as a color commentator for the IndyCar Radio Network.

He tested for the team last month at Sebring, and will have several other tests before the St. Petersburg season opening weekend March 11-13.

“I’m very thankful for this opportunity that Brian Belardi has given me,” Veach said. “After racing against his team for so many years, I’ve always had a ton of respect for him, his crew, and of course, his cars. Belardi Auto Racing competes to win championships and I would love to give them their second Indy Lights title.

“Right now, we only have a partial program in place, but with a great amount of effort on both sides. We will be doing everything possible to try to get funding together for an entire season, so we can put a championship fight in place. I look towards winter testing, and 2016, with a lot of hope and excitement.”

“We’re really happy to have Zach confirmed with us for next year, and we’ll work closely with him to make sure that we can get the funding we need to run him all season,” Belardi added.

“He’s a supreme talent both in and out of the car, and his initial test outings in the car were just as we expected.  Zach was on-pace very early in Sebring after familiarizing himself with the new Indy Lights car, and I know that we’ll challenge for race wins and the championship next year.”