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Sports Business

Indy 500 drivers' failure to mention sponsors inexcusable

May 30, 2013
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I couldn’t believe what I was hearing at the conclusion of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

So I watched—and listened—again. Twice, I re-watched the Indianapolis 500 post-race coverage. And I was astounded how many times I heard the drivers who were standing in front of a TV audience of nearly 5 million people say almost nothing about their sponsors.

During a minutes-long post-race interview, winner Tony Kanaan mentioned his dad, son, former racer and friend Alex Zanardi, and a woman who returned a good-luck medal he gave her nine years ago. All very nice, but those aren’t the people who pay the bills.

Then he concluded his interview with ABC by saying, “Man, I don’t know what to say.”

Obviously.

Anyone who has been around motorsports for any length of time, especially the drivers themselves, realize how critical corporate sponsors are to the sport. No sponsors, no racing. It’s that simple.

That’s why NASCAR drivers have been conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to mention their sponsors every five seconds. The good old boys of NASCAR have become experts at throwing their sponsors' names into the answer of almost every question—even when the question in no way shape or form calls for it.

Sponsor mentions are so pervasive in NASCAR that at times it sounds strange, and perhaps just a little annoying. Nevertheless, it’s good business.

And NASCAR drivers don’t just stop at primary sponsors. They mention primary sponsors, associate sponsors, car and engine makers, tire suppliers, and on and on. And while it can be cheesy, a good many of them will eagerly tell a TV or post-race audience that they couldn’t have done it without company ABC and company XYZ. Most NASCAR drivers refer to their car with sponsor names first.

So I watched in amazement as Kanaan enthusiastically babbled on about everything BUT his sponsors. No mention of Hydroxycut, which had its logo splashed all over his car and racing suit. No mention of his engine maker Chevrolet, which has poured tens of millions of dollars into IndyCar to show it could whip Honda. No mention of associate sponsor Mouser Electronics. Not one.

Kanaan is the same guy who this month has been crying poor, saying he wasn’t sure his team would be able to complete a full season due to financial concerns. He told reporters he’s worked harder to get sponsors than he has on his racing the last three years. You’d think he’d be acutely aware of the importance of thrusting his sponsors in the spotlight when he has the chance.

Everyone in IndyCar knows the primary reason sponsors join the series is the exposure they get during The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. When you’re standing in the winner’s circle, not mentioning your funders is inexcusable. It’s that type of exposure—and gratitude—that might keep sponsors coming back.

To his credit, Jimmy Vasser, the owner of the team Kanaan races for, KV Racing Technologies, made references to Hydroxycut and Mouser in his post-race interview on ABC.

On the driver side, Kanaan was not alone in his gaffe.

Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and veteran Marco Andretti, who placed fourth on Sunday, made zero mentions of their sponsors in post-race interviews with ABC. Zero.

Three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti made only a passing reference to his sponsor, Target, one of the strongest sponsors in all of IndyCar.

“We missed it with both Target cars,” Franchitti said of Sunday’s race. “We were out to lunch today.”

Not exactly the sort of association a sponsor is looking for, but a mention nonetheless. It’s more than Shell or Pennzoil got from Castroneves or RC Cola got from Andretti.

Motorsports marketing guru Zak Brown, of Just Marketing International, credits the gaffe to post-race hysteria.

“My only guess would be after a long and grueling and mentally draining race like the Indy 500 that the drivers simply had lost some focus and dropped the ball and didn't mention their sponsors,” Brown said. “I'm sure the drivers will have that pointed out to them and they won’t make that mistake the next time around.”

The next time around? I’m not sure I buy that explanation. These are veteran drivers who have been there and done that. Well, OK, it’s Kanaan’s first victory at Indianapolis, but still, at 38, he’s old enough to know better.

Maybe he could learn something from rookie Carlos Munoz. The 21-year-old plucked out of the Indy Lights Series was the only driver to mention his sponsor following the 500.

When asked about his second-place result, one of the first things out of his mouth was, “I have to thank my sponsors, Electric Energy Straw … ”

Well said, rookie. Well said.

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