What started as a few-thousand-dollar investment to put a company logo on Eddie Johnson's 1958 Indianapolis 500 car is now a year-round marketing commitment for Bryant Heating & Cooling Systems, valued in the annual mid-six-figure range, to sponsor an Indy Racing League team for the entire season.
For 48 years, Bryant's logo has adorned the sidepod of an open-wheel race car at the Brickyard, as the company has increasingly used the race-and later the entire IRL series-in its marketing and dealer relations campaign.
Bryant is the longest-standing, non-automotive-related sponsor involved in this year's Indianapolis 500, and one of only a handful to be involved in the IRL since its split from CART in 1994.
"This is a really unique story to have this kind of continuity in a sponsorship program through various management changes," said Eric De Bord, president and CEO of PROtential, a Woodridge, Ill.-based firm that pairs sponsors with motorsports properties. "Many managers don't realize the equity they build up, [so they] discard such sponsorship programs. [Bryant has] stuck with this through thick and thin."
Though Bryant officials were not pleased with the IRL-CART split and hope for an open-wheel reunion, company officials said they've never considered leaving the Indy Racing League.
"We believe this has been great for Bryant and great for the community," said Rick Sanfrey, Bryant's president of residential systems. "It's a program for us that is impossible to replicate. Coming here for the Indianapolis 500 leaves quite an impression with our dealers and is really good for employee morale as well."
Though Sanfrey thinks the Indianapolis 500 is a strong enough sponsorship draw by itself, he admits the IRL would be more attractive if it reconciled with Champ Car, CART's successor.
"I'd like to see the series come together because it would strengthen competition and draw more attention," Sanfrey said. "Anything that draws more attention naturally is going to be good for us."
Bryant has used the IRL, and the Indianapolis 500 in particular, as one of its primary tools in recruiting and rewarding its nationwide network of dealers. Bryant has also used the Indianapolis 500 as a platform to launch new products and introduce new advertising campaigns.
The only marketing event that comes close to rivaling the importance of the Indianapolis 500 for Bryant is a major dealer convention held each February in Las Vegas, Bryant officials said.
Though Bryant Brand Manager Kevin Dudash wouldn't reveal exactly how much the company is paying to sponsor the Fernandez Racing car piloted by Scott Sharp this year, he said IRL-related expenses claim about one-fourth of Bryant's marketing budget. Bryant also uses its IRL campaign to promote the company through nationwide trade publications and at trade shows.
The only other sports marketing initiatives Bryant has are an Indiana Pacers sponsorship and a national affiliation with Little League Baseball.
"This has been a significant platform for us to talk about our new products and communicate with our dealers," Dudash said. "It also gives us an important presence in the community."
There are some natural connections between the Indianapolis 500 and Bryant, a division of Connecticut-based Carrier Corp. Bryant's residential and light commercial division is headquartered not far from the Speedway on West Morris Street, on the city's west side, where it employs more than 2,000.
And while Bryant isn't an automotiverelated firm, company officials said the Indianapolis 500-and more recently IRL events-have been wildly popular among the company's dealers, more than 500 of which attend the race and related events each year.
There's also a powerful business-to-business networking component for Bryant with companies such as Delphi Automotive Systems, Sharp's primary sponsor.
"In terms of marketing direct to consumer, it's difficult to beat NASCAR right now," said David Morton, a local sports marketer and principal with Sunrise Sports Group LLC. "But in open-wheel racing, business-to-business relationships have always been more prevalent. That's been critical to any company that has stayed with the sport."
Bryant has never sponsored a winning team at Indianapolis, but that doesn't mean the sponsor hasn't seen some hallmark moments. Bryant sponsored the car driven by the first woman at Indianapolis, Janet Guthrie, in 1977. Bryant also sponsored the fastest ever Indianapolis 500 qualifier, Arie Luyendyk, in 1996. In 2004, Bryant sponsored Sarah Fisher, a fan favorite and the first woman to qualify for an IRL pole position.
Bryant-sponsored cars found their way to victory lane nine times in other IRL races, including Scott Sharp's victory at the Kentucky Motor Speedway last year.
With a NASCAR sponsorship, direct fan exposure is enough to justify a return on investment, said Mike Bartelli, senior vice president for sports marketing agency Millsport's Charlotte, N.C.-based motorsports division. He said an open-wheel sponsorship can be more difficult to justify.
"NASCAR has a five-toone return on investment in TV exposure alone," Bartelli said. "The IRL doesn't have that yet, so sponsors have to look to other measures to justify the expense. That doesn't mean an [IRL sponsorship] can't be justified."
Expenses for Bryant include not only the money that goes to Fernandez Racing, but also what it spends to host dealers and pay for activities for the race weekend-this year May 26-29. The weekend includes plant tours and seminars; sending dealers to the 500 Festival Parade and other activities, including the race; hosting hospitality events at the track; and an outing at New Castle Motor Sports Park, a go-kart track owned by former IRL driver Mark Dismore.
Bryant also books almost every room at the Marriott East Hotel for its dealers.
"We've done that for at least the last 10 years," Dudash said.
Though the Indianapolis 500 is the cornerstone of Bryant's IRL involvement, it also hosts dealers and other clients at IRL races around the country, including 30 at Florida and 60 in Texas this year.
Bryant officials admit it's difficult to gauge the return on investment of its IRL marketing program, but they have little doubt it works.
"Maybe the proof is anecdotal, but that makes it no less compelling," Sanfrey said. "The race weekend, the experiences at the track-that leaves quite an impression that stays with our dealers."
"We believe the history we've built here with this event has really strengthened our network of dealers," Dudash said. "We believe so strongly in it, there's not a member of our leadership team here that isn't involved in our month of May activities."
And though the majority of the program is not pointed directly at consumers, Sanfrey and Dudash have little doubt there is a major trickle-down effect. Sports marketers agree.
"Your dealers are a company's major interface with the public," PROtential's De Bord said. "Anything you can do to energize them moves the needle on sales."
The driver is often the connection that draws the dealers and company employees together, Dudash said.
"It's unique in that you have someone you directly identify with and relate to," Dudash said. "It creates kind of a hometown team to root for. That really crystallizes it for the dealers.
"Drivers like Scott Sharp fully understand the corporate relations side. He's been great in interacting with our distributors and dealers."