Andretti Autosport's purchase of an Indy 500 ride for bumped driver Ryan Hunter-Reay is an extreme example of the influence sponsors wield in the sport, but it's not unusual for motorsports teams to wheel and deal during race week.
With sponsors paying big money for an appearance in the big race, teams are willing to find a way to make up for cars that don't qualify.
Three of Andretti's five drivers made Sunday's race during weekend qualifications, but each of those cars is loaded with sponsors of its own. That's one reason Andretti turned to A.J. Foyt for a car to take on Hunter-Reay and his sponsors, DHL International and Sun Drop citrus soda, said Derek Daly, a former driver and WISH-TV racing analyst.
Hunter-Reay, the only American to win an IndyCar race in three years, was bumped from the field late on Sunday, but Andretti was able to make a deal to put him in a Foyt team car that Brazilian driver Bruno Junqueira qualified in the 19th spot of the 33-car field. Junqueira will miss the race and Hunter-Reay will be relegated to the 33rd spot for switching cars.
Racing sources said the Andretti team paid $200,000 to $250,000 for the ride from Foyt. DHL's clout as a sponsor was a major factor in the deal, Daly said. As a season-long sponsor, the global shipping company probably covers 40 percent of Hunter-Reay's program, which would have a budget of $7 million to $10 million, he said.
Hunter-Reay's new ride will retain Foyt's signature Coyote Red paint color and still promote Foyt sponsors ABC Supply and Alfe Heat Treating. But it will also promote DHL, Sun Drop and other Andretti sponsors.
This season was DHL's first as an IndyCar series sponsor, and Daly thinks the deal will give the global shipping company reason to stick with Andretti next year. "It'll certainly show that when things did get difficult, they came up with a solution to satisfy the marketing platform of the Indy 500," he said.
Daly added that he wouldn't be surprised if the sponsors of another Andretti driver who didn't qualify, Mike Conway, end up on the Foyt car as well. Those sponsors are Hire Heroes USA and 7-Eleven Inc.
Those kinds of deals are far more common than driver switches, experts say.
"You might have a team that made the show with one car and not another, and you might end up putting that sponsor on a different car," said Zak Brown, CEO of Zionsville-based Just Marketing Inc., a leading motorsports marketing agency. "Usually those deals are cut this week."
Teams try to manage sponsors' expectations about the 500, Brown said. "A lot of people went home. You knew that was part of the game," he said.
One sponsor that needed to find a new team was Fuzzy's Vodka, which backed the car that Patrick Carpentier of Dragon Racing crashed last weekend. Fuzzy's quickly jumped to Panther Racing driver Buddy Rice, who qualified seventh.
Among the other full-time drivers who didn't qualify were Sebastian Saavedra with Conquest Racing. The team drew some affiliate sponsors, including the Conrad Indianapolis, just for the 500. Conquest's Pippa Mann, a rookie, will drive on Sunday and her car will promote the Conrad.