Brant James
Wednesday November 11th, 2009

The Indy Racing League looked smart in sassy white pants and cut a stylish businessman's profile in a charcoal suit and hipster glasses. It was uncharacteristically bawdy, a little prance-y on the catwalk, but what the heck, it was fully subsidized for the first time in its 13 years. Time to work it.

Maybe the mock fashion show, complete with runway models and the band Audioslave thumping behind the blinding lights, was the perfect backdrop for the open wheel circuit to announce its new title sponsorship deal with Phillips-Van Heusen's Izod apparel retailer brand. Color it the not-so-subtle unveiling of a whole new fashion trend on what league officials effusively deemed one of the biggest days in the series history.

"Looking at it from a driver perspective, this is what we've been waiting for," said Ryan Hunter-Reay. "This is it. This is a fresh start for the IndyCar series. The sky is the limit right now. That's a cliché, but this is a great start."

If the IRL -- make that Izod IndyCar Series -- is to ever recapture its place in a mainstream claimed by NASCAR in the 1990s, this may be the time. At least series president of competition Brian Barnhart thinks so. As does PVH executive vice president of marketing Mike Kelly. So much so that they stood among the models and detailed red-and-black IndyCar last Thursday and said as much while Indianapolis Motor Speedway employees and assorted media ringed the stage. While admitting that his company was able to buy low and attach its name and massive global marketing machine to an entire series for what it would have cost to fund one team in NASCAR, Kelly suggested he had employed his eye for the newest trend in helping guide the apparel retailer from a window shopper to a vested partner in the IRL.

And besides, he said, NASCAR is so 1995.

"The model, we feel it's 'post-peak'," Kelly said of NASCAR. "That would have been right some years back. We don't feel it's right today. It's a very crowded space. I think the model that's required there, and then your ability to have the kinds of controls or connect-the-dots, you're not going to get it. People have their positions. They hold those positions, they're steeped, it's crowded. It doesn't come anywhere near, we think, the opportunities that are here."

Harsh, but a correct assessment, said Peter DeLorenzo, an auto industry analyst and editor of And in some ways, a compliment to the way stock car racing became the high-speed sport of choice for more hard-core and casual fans.

"Make no mistake, NASCAR is still far and away the most-watched form of motor racing in North America, but it is post-peak," he said. "NASCAR peaked in the spring of 2007 and has been on a downward slide ever since. The IRL can only go up, but frankly, it's been hovering around the bottom of the barrel so long. Will it be as popular as NASCAR? It would take years and a series of events I can't envision, but they are clearly maximizing what they have right now."

Aside from attaching its name to a major professional sport for at least six years, Izod will have access to a trove of materials from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame museum. IRL sources said the total value of Izod's yearly commitment, including money paid to the league and marketing through Macy's department store, could reach about $20 million. Izod can exercise a two-year renewal option at the end of the deal.

"This is a much better deal for them than NASCAR. It's almost brand chaos in NASCAR," De Lorenzo said. "So many sponsors, so many competing messages, so many ads. For them to stand out in NASCAR, they'd have to spend $ 50 million a year, $30 million to activate, just to get to the point where anybody would notice them. Here they get to be the presenting sponsor."

Decorum is in the details in such matters. Barnhart called the IRL a "good value proposition." Kelly deemed it "an opportunity."

"I'm not sure, if everything was rosy, if everything was great, if the series was mature or fully developed after its reunification, if we could afford it," Kelly said. "The opportunity, I think, is right time, right place. We're seeing upside."

The upside is to be mined in the mainstream, in pop culture, through billboards and television commercial blitzes across a spectrum of entertainment choices and demographics. The casually curious customer viewing an Izod ad will be bathed in Indy lore and Izod Series present. Hunter-Reay and Graham suddenly show up at events like Mark Wahlberg's Entourage celebrity golf tournament.

"The best thing will be the activation aspect because they will spend a lot of money raising the awareness of the series and increasing the amount of eye balls that are watching our sport, and that is the first step in raising the value of participation in this series," Barnhart said. "To be honest, it's the first legitimate title sponsor we've ever had. I think a lot of people expected it to be within the motorsport industry when it happened. [But this will] take us into the living rooms of people that aren't necessarily race fans to begin with. I think that is the exciting part of it."

That formula stoked NASCAR's explosive growth and initiated its modern era in 1971, when cigarette giant R.J. Reynolds attached its Winston brand and marketing juggernaut to the series. Other "non-endemic" brands such as cell phone service-providers Nextel and Sprint followed, proving that companies beyond those that sell automotive-related wares could thrive in major motorsports.

"Motorsports provide the opportunity to reach broad audiences. No fan base is monolithic," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "Sponsors that initially might not appear as a natural can significantly expand their market by making their product relevant to the sport and the fan base."

Money from the Izod sponsorship will bolster the league's team allocation fund. They will not, Barnhart said, be used to subsidize struggling or aspiring teams, even though Barnhart expects it could increase car count beyond the "22-to-25" for 2010.

One of those prospective teams is new sports car power de Ferran Motorsports, which owner Gil De Ferran hopes to bring to the open wheel series next year. In his Brownsburg race shop, a few miles up Crawfordsville Road from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the former Indianapolis 500-winner and two-time Champ Car champion has a mind full of plans and designs without a sponsor to fund them. Time is running short to be prepared for 2010. Then there is the matter of competing in a sport currently dominated by teams such as Penske and Ganassi. But he still wants in.

"For me, it was one of the necessary steps for IndyCar to regain what I think is its rightful place in the world of motorsports," he said of the title sponsorship announcement. "Is the job finished? No. There is still a long way to go for Indy car to gain back that position I think it should have.

"I think this is purely management, understanding what you're all about and what is important and what is not. Make sure you're long-term viability is ongoing. You've got to make choices everyday. Those choices, one way or another, they will affect your long term."

The league has apparently found a true patriot in Kelly. Granted, applied enthusiasm is a marketer's trade, but the bespectacled Kelly has emanated both zeal and big notions since Izod became the series' official apparel partner 16 months ago. Hunter-Reay, then sponsored by the company, called Kelly "crazy," but in the good way after meeting him.

When moving into a new office recently, Kelly hung a photograph of famed actor/driver/Champ Car team owner Paul Newman in a race car as nod to an era when open wheel represented glamour, sophistication and the sexiness of instant, fiery death or instant fiery glory. Now Izod is charged with resurrecting those iconic images and festooning them onto apparel that tweens and their parents will buy at the mall, or commercials they will view on non-racing channels and perhaps dream of Gasoline Alley and the month of May. Better yet, the month of July, August, September and October.

"The assets are really rich," Kelly said. "A lot of times as a marketer you need things to work with. We have stories that are rich but not really told. Think about the league and the power of the league in the '80s and the '90s in the racing landscape and now you've got next-generation males, people who don't realize how sexy and cool this sport is because of the competitive landscape, etc."

More sponsors, perhaps enticed by the credibility of a title sponsor, could eventually help tell those stories, too, Barnhart said.

"The more sponsors we get to build the awareness of our stars, the better it is for us," Barnhart said. "Those are the ones who have built the awareness of the stars in other series [notably NASCAR], the Budweisers and Home Depots and the Office Depots. If we can get more sponsors on board to do that, I think it's a good pattern for us to grow."

Open wheel racing has become accustomed to bad news quickly following good since Tony George's founding of the IRL created a fissure that NASCAR wedged wide. Reunification was followed by a cratering of the world economy and a series of financial challenges that delayed the signing of a title sponsor by more than a year. Now, though, there appears to be optimism, and a sense of self-satisfaction among IRL officials, even amid a lingering economic crisis. The circuit that grew frugally in NASCAR's shade now collectively dreams of branching out as the stock car racing circuit that mushroomed so quickly now addresses flagging attendance and television numbers, and major team sponsorship issues.

While NASCAR clearly remains the preeminent spectator racing series in North America, dwarfing the IRL in all aspects, there is room for a dream or two. Danica Patrick's NASCAR flirtation will apparently remain a dalliance for another three years, which could allow burgeoning American star Graham Rahal to become the face of the league.

A new car is expected within the next few seasons, and three automakers are in discussion to join the series by 2012, relieving Honda of its servitude as sole engine-supplier and generating the competitive situation the Japanese automaker entered the series to find. Among that new group could be some member of the Porsche-Audi-Volkswagen group and perhaps Fiat-Chrysler, which emerged from bankruptcy through a federal bailout under the control of CEO Sergio Marchionne and is and bleeding NASCAR teams from its Dodge program. Fiat-Chrysler, which is reportedly set to replace some of its Dodge brands with Fiat lines by 2013, could participate in the IRL for a fraction of its NASCAR budget while still marketing its popular line of trucks domestically.

"[The IRL] makes a lot of sense for a lot of manufacturers," De Lorenzo said. "If I am a manufacturer, I would want to win the Indianapolis 500. I would suspect they'll get three. Compared to Formula One, for instance, BMW, Toyota, Renault, they could do an [IRL] engine program for a fourth of what they were spending. I wouldn't be surprised at all if all of a sudden the IRL becomes more attractive because people see the presenting sponsor, a series using alternative fuel, and the lure of winning the Indianapolis 500 will always be very strong."

A fashion show and an occasion deemed so momentous by league officials could have used the league's most marketable star, but Danica Patrick was absent because of a previous commitment to a trade show in Las Vegas and would have been a distraction had she actually attended anyway.

But Patrick will eventually be called to serve, to lend her fame to the title sponsor and maybe take a spin on the catwalk. Izod has, in effect, signed 20 or so new models, Kelly said, though it will be interesting to see the level of involvement by Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe -- whose team is partially sponsored by Hugo Boss -- and Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti -- whose team has a deal with Champion. Kelly suggested the residuals of the runway have been beneficial to the drivers so far.

"We had [Mario] Moraes at the W Hotel in Miami," he chuckled. "We took him out on stage and the girls screamed. I asked one of the guys by the stage, "When is the last time you heard that." And, of course ... he had a good night. So it works both ways."

So they all hope.

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