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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.

Pagenaud disappointed by Boston drop; would love Watkins Glen option

LONG BEACH, CA - APRIL 17: Simon Pagenaud is the winner of the 42nd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 17, 2016 in Long Beach, California.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
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The Verizon IndyCar Series points leader, Simon Pagenaud, was one of several drivers the series deployed to Boston (James Hinchcliffe was another) to promote what would have been the inaugural Grand Prix of Boston on Labor Day weekend.

“The underground aspect is very unique,” Pagenaud said in a series release in January. “I mainly look forward to hearing the sound of the car as I drive under it. The layout is very fun and the track itself is in a fast-growing area with a great dynamic. I should be able to get good speed because the wide track, fast corners and smooth roads after all of the work (is completed) will most likely make this track one of the fastest tracks there is.

“The Verizon IndyCar Series is very excited for the potential that Boston brings as a whole,” he added. “It is exciting to be able to reach out to another population in a great area and hopefully see its economy change for the better as a result of the race. I would really like to thank the city of Boston for this opportunity.”

But with news emerging late Friday that the race wouldn’t be on the 2016 schedule after all, Pagenaud reflected a bit of disappointment that people didn’t understand what the event could have provided.

“Yeah, I’m very disappointed,” Pagenaud told reporters Wednesday during a teleconference. “That was going to be a great event, perfect position in the city.

“I managed to see the excitement of I guess half of the population in Boston, because I know some of the population was not excited about it. There were a lot of people that were pulling for the race. I saw the excitement.

“The racetrack itself looked like it was going to be a beautiful layout. We were going to go through a tunnel, which would have been really cool.”

Naturally, the next follow-up question is where would Pagenaud like to race provided INDYCAR could fill the slot on the calendar.

A permanent road course in the vain of Road America – where Pagenaud’s had success in sports cars and clinched his Champ Car Atlantic crown in 2006 – immediately came to mind.

“I hope we can replace the race. For sure, I’m thinking of Watkins Glen. I’ve never been there, but it looks like a beautiful track. It’s been repaved, as well, recently. That would be a good market and really cool track to go to.

“There’s plenty of tracks in America that could be exciting to go to. I’d like to go back to Fontana personally. I love that oval. But I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For what it’s worth, Watkins Glen has been discussed openly as an option although whether INDYCAR could make it happen and whether the track will be able to accommodate it remains to be seen.

Watkins Glen International Michael Printup told the Boston Herald that while the track would “be a great site for them,” it remains a long ways off and would require a minor miracle to do some schedule jostling.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but we’re not even there yet. It’s a huge challenge,” Printup told the Herald, with neither INDYCAR officials nor Grand Prix of Boston officials available for further comment.

I had to joke with Pagenaud, who’s now driving a Menards-backed entry with John Menard’s support for the full month of May and for IndyCar’s return to Road America in late June, whether he could persuade Menard to help IndyCar return – again – to the Milwaukee Mile.

“There you go,” Pagenaud laughed, although such an option doesn’t seem realistic at this juncture.

Space dreams occur for Hildebrand, Daly at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

Hildebrand Daly
(Photo courtesy Conor Daly official Twitter page)
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To some awe-struck fans, their dreams of driving an Indy car are an out-of-this-world experience.

For Conor Daly and JR Hildebrand, driving an race car in the Verizon IndyCar Series is an orbital experience what they do for a living.

Earlier this week in Houston, on Tuesday, Daly and Hildebrand enjoyed a REAL out of this world experience as they visited NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The day-long visit was an exceptional trip for the two drivers, who hung out with robots, did a virtual tour of the International Space Station, saw mockups of the Space Shuttle and more.

But the best part for the duo was the opportunity to have a live 10-minute conversation with astronauts Tim Kopra, Jeff Williams and Tim Peake.

“Man, I wanna go to space,” Daly said, via IndyCar.com. Of note, the driver of the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda also went to “Space Camp” prior to the series’ most recent round at Barber Motorsports Park.

Added Hildebrand, “Ultimately, you end the day feeling overwhelmed about how much amazing stuff you got to see.”

Later, as their trip came to an end, the drivers were more than just appreciative. They left the JSC in a kind of awe that they’ll likely feel for a long time to come.

“Right away we were able to find common ground on things that we do compared to things that they do,” Hildebrand said. “Coming from the motorsports community, there is so much crossover in terms of the way that things happen at NASA.”

Added Daly, “This is probably one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Check out some of the many tweets both drivers and their new friends, the astronauts in the ISS, posted, as well as tweets of others including Indianapolis Motor Speedway president J. Douglas Boles:

Follow @JerryBonkowski

PWC moves TC rounds from Mid-Ohio to Lime Rock

Grahovec. Photo: PWC
Photo: PWC
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The collateral effect of the Formula 4 U.S. Championship postponing its race debut from May 27-28 at Lime Rock Park until June is that the Pirelli World Challenge had an available slot alongside its GT/GTA/GT Cup and GTS classes.

And what better way to plug that gap than to add the three TC classes?

The Touring Car, Touring Car A and Touring Car B classes will join the slate that weekend for a full complement of PWC classes at Lime Rock.

Their races move from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course at the end of July, which was already a jam-packed weekend featuring the Verizon IndyCar Series, the full complement of Mazda Road to Indy series with two Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races apiece, three Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda races and the two GT/GTA/GT Cup and GTS races each.

With the limited time track originally scheduled for the TC cars at Mid-Ohio, series officials felt it was in the best interest of the three TC classes to move to the PWC headliner weekend at Lime Rock in the traditional Memorial Weekend classic.

In addition, the TC teams unable to attend the Lime Rock rounds will receive double points at the Pirelli World Challenge season finale set for Oct. 6-9 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

“We had always wanted to include our TC classes at Lime Rock Park, but, with our partnership with SCCA Pro Racing, we deferred to their schedule and the much anticipated debut of the F4 Series,” said Greg Gill, President and CEO of WC Vision.

“When the F4 debut delay was announced, it was simple and pleasant decision to be able to include our TC classes with us at our Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix presented by Bentley.”

SCCA postpones F4 U.S. Championship race debut

F4 Test Car
Photo: F4 U.S. Championship
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Citing a lack of time in manufacturing, SCCA Pro Racing announced the new Formula 4 U.S. Championship race debut will be delayed.

The first weekend had been scheduled May 27-28 at Lime Rock Park, along with the Pirelli World Challenge.

The full release is below:

SCCA Pro Racing announced its debut weekend of the Formula 4 United States Championship has been postponed due to delays in manufacturing of a sufficient number of cars to meet the team demand.

The first race weekend, scheduled for May 27-28 at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Connecticut, will be rescheduled at a track and date to be determined to maintain a five-event championship series. The F4 U.S. Championship will now make its debut June 10-12 at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, New Jersey.

“Regrettably, if the Lime Rock event were to go ahead as planned, we would be in jeopardy of leaving some drivers and teams who are committed to the series disenfranchised,” SCCA Pro Racing President and CEO Derrick Walker said. “We felt it was important that all drivers who want to participate in the F4 United States Championship be given a chance to do so. We appreciate the loyalty they have shown us.”

Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) regulations require a minimum of 12 cars for each championship event, which currently would not have been an issue for Lime Rock. However, delaying the start of the inaugural event of the F4 U.S. Championship provides the opportunity to fulfill all car orders exceeding the FIA requirement.

“We are very proud to be constructing the first FIA approved monocoque chassis in America,” said Crawford Composites President Max Crawford, whose company is producing the chassis. “We believe the F4 U.S. Championship is the start of something great for American motorsports. I fully endorse the decision to reschedule the first race, and we look forward to getting all the drivers in the lineup in New Jersey.”

Crawford is confident a sufficient quantity of cars can be produced for the current number of drivers committed to the F4 U.S. Championship to debut in New Jersey.