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IndyCar needs a Sugar Daddy

Something was missing at the Milwaukee IndyFest this past weekend.  It wasn’t the racing; that was excellent.  There were passes throughout the field, and drivers were dirt-tracking the corners.  It wasn’t the strategy.  Pit strategy put A.J. Foyt Racing’s Takuma Sato in front of the pack and allowed Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to take advantage of a late yellow flag to move to the lead and victory.  It wasn’t the show.  The promoters (Andretti-Green Productions) made both Friday and Saturday a festival of, well, festivals.  Bands played, amusement rides whirled, and the fans got close to the drivers.  Still, one glaring omission cast a dark shadow over this otherwise sunny race.  Sponsorship.

I know what you are going to say: there were RC Cola and Sun Drop banners everywhere!  Agreed, but those are not the deep-pocketed sugar daddies that all events and series need.  The name Milwaukee IndyFest say it all.  The event had no title sponsor.  A title sponsor buys the rights to the event, and the promoter uses the cash to do two things: promote the event and put cash in his pocket.  Everybody has to eat, or the show will not go on.

The problem facing every promoter and venue in motorsports is that the big-time sugar daddies just aren’t very hungry right now.  If you don’t count longtime series supporters Honda and Firestone and Roger Penske’s connections to Chevrolet, Shell, and Firestone, then the 19 race IndyCar schedule has four title sponsors for its races: Toyota, Iowa Corn, Go Pro, and Mav TV.  Other than the Daytona 500, its crown jewel, NASCAR’s February to November schedule has exactly ONE race without a title sponsor: the New Hampshire 300.  And with the TV money that flows to the promoters, that race will most certainly make money, just not as much as every other sponsored race.  And since most of the tracks are owned by either Speedway Motorports, Inc. (SMI) or International Speedway Corporation (ISC), the competition for sponsorship dollars is decreased.  One reason the IZOD IndyCar Series loves the street and road courses is because they are not owned by these two entities.  The street courses in particular offer great opportunities for sponsorship.

What makes Subway, Bank of America, Sylvania, Geico, Coca-Cola, Fed-Ex, and other decidedly non-automotive sponsors plunk down millions of dollars to attach themselves to the mind-numbingly similar races put on by the stock cars?  If you will pardon the vernacular, the answer is asses and eyes.  Those races have people in the seats at the track and viewers sitting at home in front of the TV.  Currently, IndyCar has neither.

The IZOD IndyCar Series does have a title sponsor in IZOD that not only wants out but also refuses to activate that sponsorship in any meaningful way from week to week.  Does IndyCar need a new series sponsor?  Absolutely it does.  Are there any open wallets out there?  The cellular giant Verizon is a name that keeps coming up, but who knows?  It has to make sense from a business perspective.  The value for Verizon is quite likely a business-to-business relationship.  The people who inhabit those corporate chalets and suites are business partners for the sponsors.  In other words, the sponsors make money off of these people.  And while the corporate kingpins certainly want the hoi polloi in the stands and watching on TV to use their products, this sell is often secondary to the business-to-business connection.

IndyCar is at a crossroads.  The product is scintillating.  The venues are diverse.  The drivers are engaging.  But people are not attending the races or watching the broadcasts.  You often hear about racing teams struggling to find the right set-up.  They start down the wrong path and can never get back to normal.  Every choice they make takes them farther from where they want to be, and they start flailing about, taking bigger risks in the hope that something will be right.  That is the IZOD IndyCar Series right now.  The races struggle to find sponsorship to stay afloat.  The series struggles to create interest and fans.  And the flailing begins.  Double headers are offered as a way to save/make money and boost ratings.  Green-white-checkered finishes are discussed as a way to entertain a jaded fan base.  And so it begins.

The solutions are obvious, though.  The series needs increased sponsorship, higher ratings, and bigger gates.  The road map to get there is the problem.  It is sad to watch a once-proud series lose its way like a race team that just can’t find the right set-up.  The hope is that the series does not lose its way so badly that it can’t find its way home.

Ten Worthless Opinions – Milwaukee IndyFest Weekend Edition

The run of good racing continued at Milwaukee for the IZOD IndyCar Series (with their lack of activation and interest, I don’t think it really matters if I put the word “IZOD” in the series title).  Leaders changed, drivers bitched, and a world-class screw-up cost a driver hugely.  In other words, it was business as usual.  In this edition of my WO’s (worthless opinions), expect to read about what’s really important in Milwaukee: beer.

1.  Tip back a Tsingtao beer.  The IndyCar race in China has been canceled, purportedly to not interfere with the Qingdao beer festival scheduled at the same time.  If that is the real reason, you have to admire a city and a mayor who have their priorities straight.  I am sure this would be appreciated by the residents of Milwaukee.  Sister cities, anyone?

2.  Pop a Pabst Blue Ribbon, Milwaukee Mile.  The Mile likes to brag that it is older than Indy.  Well, Pabst is 168 years old, youngster.  From one Milwaukee old-timer to another, then.  It was sad to think that this venerable track might have been done with IndyCar, but the news that Andretti Sports Marketing will promote the IndyFest in 2013 was announced during the race.  Looks like we don’t have to pour out a 40 for the mile.  Word.

3.  Throw back a Blatz, ABC.  Add another Milwaukee beer to the list.  ABC, as we have all come to expect, does just enough to get through the broadcast.  But what happens when it rains?  Send the pit reporters on a mission to find interviews.  Jaime Little, Vince Welch, and Rick DeBruhl did a great job entertaining us.  Not unexpectedly, they started with Ganassi and Penske drivers, but they worked their way through the paddock.  As always, Tony Kanaan was in the background of Rubens Barrichello’s interview mugging for the camera.  Do you ever see that in NASCAR?  How about Katherine Legge being interviewed as a driver, not as a female?  Take notes, NASCAR.  By the way, the ABC IZOD IndyCar Series pit reporters are the best in the business.  How about working on the broadcast booth to match it up?  We’d appreciate it.  Just one example of booth information: After Simona de Silvestro spun, we were told that she has talent because she spun at Milwaukee and didn’t hit anything.  Uh, guys?  She spun.  Isn’t talent more in evidence by not spinning.

4.  Have a sip of warm Old Milwaukee, ABC/ESPN.  It was nice of you to pimp Go Daddy like you did.  I’m sure they appreciated it.  How about doing the same for all of the sponsors?  Maybe you only promote the ones who advertise with you, huh?  Promote them all!  Build the series and you build the brand.  Make IndyCar a hot property.  Then you can pimp everything about it.  You know, like you do for NASCAR.

5.  Go have a flat Schlitz, ABC.  What is that flapping flag background on the split screen?  I know, you must have the interns do something.  Make it go away, please.  The background movement while I’m trying to focus on the small split screen boxes gave me motion sickness.  Does anyone at ABC even care about sports programming anymore?

6.  Sorry, Beaux.  It looks like a case of warm Wisconsin Club for you.  The worst beer of my youth goes well with the worst call of the year for IndyCar race control.  While I appreciate you manning up and offering your mea culpa for the call, IndyCar took one in the chops here.  As the series tries to regain a legitimacy with the public, we once again have a glaring example of why our fans are so long-suffering.  And to add insult to injury, ABC was flailing about, trying to explain what happened to the viewing audience.  Basically, the booth couldn’t make heads or tails of the call.  The lack of communication with your broadcast partner made the series look amateurish.  Again.  *deep sigh*

7.  Open a bottle of Miller High Life – The Champagne of Bottled Beer so the viewers can celebrate.  I was so excited when ABC did not switch to the NASCAR Nationwide race when the time rolled around.  Yeah, suck it, NASCAR!  I enjoyed the thirty minutes of feeling superior to the number two series of NASCAR.  And then ABC switched to the Nationwide race.  Yeah, we preempted the pre-race show.  So suck it, NASCAR!  Our series is better than your number two series’ pre-race show.

8.  How about some Ale Asylum Ambergeddon (6.8% ABV) for Andretti Sports Marketing?  The Andretti group prevented the Milwaukee Mile from extinction.  Commend them with a toast!  Here’s to you, iconic race track saving marketing team!  You made something out of nothing.  You added activities that gave fans something to do at a price they could afford on a day they could attend.  It’s still a simple proposition.  If IndyCar wants promoters to pay a hefty sanctioning fee (as I assume Andretti Sports Marketing will next year), the promoters must create a festival atmosphere with entertainment options.  In other words, if people don’t come to the event, the promoter loses money.  No money, no event.  Oval tracks, take notice.  Hire Andretti Sports Marketing to promote your next event.

9.  Quaff a Steven’s Point Brewery Nude Beach Summer Wheat while you read a few race notes:

  • Dario in the wall!  “Sorry guys, not my fault.  I drive for Chip Ganassi, where blame lies elsewhere.  Ryan Briscoe caused it all on the last lap” (not a real quote).
  • Sometimes it’s simple.  John Erickson, Helio’s strategist, on Milwaukee plan: “We just want to get him to the front.”  ‘Nuff said.
  • James Jakes was upset with Takuma Sato’s “banzai moves.”  What’s next, a Pearl Harbor reference?
  • Chip Ganassi was less than supercilious when he could not find someone to blame for lost positions under yellow.  Is he changing?
  • Chip does not change!  The sun still rises in the east.  Now has Ryan Briscoe to blame for Dario’s wreck.
  • Why is someone not sponsoring SFHRacing and Josef Newgarden?  WHY?  Who really wants a personable, funny, and fast racer with a feel good story team.  What can a marketing department do with that, anyway?
  • Tires went away and cars were passed.  The racing was pretty good, but on a short track it was so hard for TV to keep up with the action.  And that’s not a knock.  There’s was too much going on.  It seemed TV just missed every exciting thing.  Sometimes you are just not looking in the right direction.
  • Poetic justice for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport to win the race.  RHR was due, and AA deserves to elbow the Big Two aside every now and then.

10.  Treat yourself to a Lakefront Brewing Fixed Gear American Red Ale, a Horny Goat Hopped Up ‘N Horny IPA, or a New Glarus Fat Squirrel.  You are an open-wheel racing fan and deserve the best.  To cap off the weekend, I attended the final night of the USAC Indiana Midget Week at Kokomo Speedway.  You have to love a dirt track that has pictures of Jim Hurtibise, Bobby Grimm, Bob Tattersal, Rich Vogler, and Mel Kenyon hanging on its grandstand.  You owe it to yourself to find your local dirt track and support the grass-roots racing that gives us our future stars.  The future stars on display at Kokomo were Kyle Larson and Bryan Clauson, who finished 1-2 in both the sprint and midget races.  USAC might be a villain to IndyCar fans, but they sure know how to run the sprints and midgets.  As I tweeted, the 30 lap midget feature was like a mullet: all business in the front and crazy in the back.

That’s it for this week’s WO’s (worthless opinions).  Time to line up a few Leinenkugel Summer Shandys and enjoy the rest of the day.

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