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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.

F1 Paddock Pass: Force India VJM10 Launch (VIDEO)

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In the second edition of this week’s F1 on NBC Sports original digital series Paddock Pass, the Sahara Force India team reveals the VJM10 at the Silverstone Circuit in England, not far from the team’s headquarters.

Force India’s steady climb up the ladder has seen them rise to fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, achieved last year.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton checks in with drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, the latter of whom shifts to Force India after an impressive half season with Manor last year.

“It just looks amazing. It’s the first time I’ve been so excited looking at the car,” Perez told Buxton. “We have to adapt to a new driving style and see how physically demanding it is. It will be a big challenge for us.”

Otmar Szafnauer, COO of Sahara Force India, also offered his thoughts and expectations:

“The only way to hope to keep (the momentum) was to develop the 2017 car early. We don’t have the resources for parallel development,” Szafnauer told Buxton.

Stay tuned to the end of the video for a potential nugget about the testing lineup.

A link to Renault’s Paddock Pass from yesterday is here.

Further preseason content will come this week and into next on NBCSports.com.

New Sauber C36 chassis hits the track (VIDEO)

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Although Formula 1 testing doesn’t begin until Monday, several teams have filming days in advance at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona to gather preliminary material ahead of the new year.

The first up of those is Sauber F1 Team, which premiered its new C36 chassis on Monday and has now hit the Barcelona track for filming sessions. The Ferrari-powered car is the 25th in Sauber’s F1 history.

Marcus Ericsson took the initial shakedown with Pascal Wehrlein sidelined owing to his injuries sustained at the Race of Champions. Antonio Giovinazzi is set to fill in at the first test.

Sauber’s released a quick video of the test on its social channels and website, and is linked above.

Williams confirms running order for Barcelona tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 25:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams drives during day four of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 25, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Martini Racing has confirmed who’s running when ahead of the two Barcelona tests, starting next week.

At the first test, Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll will alternate days, with Massa running days one and three and Stroll getting in for days two and four.

The second test will see the Canadian in the first two days before the Brazilian takes over the last two.

Stroll’s had testing in older Williams chassis, but this will mark his first running in the new FW40 chassis. Williams released renderings of the chassis last week.

Williams Martini Racing – Barcelona Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Felipe Massa
February 28 – Lance Stroll
March 1 – Felipe Massa
March 2 – Lance Stroll

Test 2
March 7 – Lance Stroll
March 8 – Lance Stroll
March 9 – Felipe Massa
March 10 – Felipe Massa

KV Racing’s auction set for March 27

NEWTON, IA - JULY 11: Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the #11 Mistic KVSH Racing Dallara Chevrolet, leads Sebastian Saavedra, driver of the #17 Automatic Fire Sprinklers KV AFS Racing Dallara Chevrolet, during practice for the Iowa Corn Indy 300 at Iowa Speedway on July 11, 2014 in Newton, Iowa. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images)
Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Saavedra in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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The remaining assets from KV Racing Technology will be auctioned off on March 27 in a live and online auction put on by Key Auctioneers in Indianapolis.

Much of KV’s inventory has been sold to new Verizon IndyCar Series entrant Juncos Racing, which formally announced its arrival into the series on Tuesday. That includes three chassis, two full sets of pit equipment and one transporter, among other items per Trackside Online.

What’s left for KV of current equipment includes one of the Dallara DW12 chassis – it appears to be the chassis used by Stefan Wilson in last year’s Indianapolis 500 – dampers, drives, gears, lay shafts and more.

There’s also a bit of rolling stock, hospitality and other memorabilia available.

A full page of what’s available is linked here.

KV Racing was born out of the assets of the former PacWest Racing team (PWR Championship Racing in its final year of 2002), and launched as PK Racing in 2003.

Despite going through myriad name changes in the 14 years since, KV was still a fun part of the IndyCar fabric and thanks to Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser, a staple in the paddock. They never fully evolved into a championship-contending team but were an Indianapolis 500-winning entry.

With their demise, it left Dale Coyne Racing as the last of the Champ Car racing teams that switched over to IndyCar in 2008 still standing. But Juncos’ arrival as the ninth team gives new life to a new breed of team owners coming into the series and hopefully opens the door for more from here.

In the meantime, if you’re in Indianapolis and have the means or desire to get a piece of the KV history, March 27 represents that chance.