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
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
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
"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
"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
"Motorsports provide the opportunity to reach broad audiences. No fan base is monolithic," NASCAR spokesman
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
"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
"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
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.
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
"[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
So they all hope.