Ready to unify?: Danica’s impact puts IRL in driver’s seat

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To nudge the idea along, executives of the Japanese automaker are becoming personally involved, marking the first time an IRL sponsor and major manufacturer has pushed this hard for unification talks.

“It’s no small deal when a partner like Honda gets involved,” said Bob Basche, chairman of Millsport, a Stamford, Conn.-based sports and event marketing agency. “Not only do they supply engines [to the IRL], but Honda pumps in millions of dollars annually in sponsorship and advertising for the series.”

Officials for Toyota Motor Corp., another IRL engine supplier and major series sponsor, have also voiced support for unification, though company officials said they are not involved in brokering any deals. Honda’s and Toyota’s contracts to supply engines for the IRL expire after the 2006 season, which could be a strong incentive for IRL officials to listen when the two Japanese companies talk.

Robert Clarke, general manager of Honda Performance Development, said he has met separately with leaders from the IRL and its rival, Champ Car, and believes the climate is right to get something done. Officials of both Indianapolis-based series are pondering future engine formulas. A similar engine formula would be key in bringing the two together.

IRL officials were set to release their engine formula in May, but have delayed the announcement for unspecified reasons.

Clarke said he is being urged to get involved by Honda executives at the highest level. Though Honda will not lay down any ultimatums, he added, the company has made its feelings clear.

“There simply aren’t enough fans to support two open-wheel series,” he said.

“The TV ratings and sponsorship picture are still troublesome,” added Toyota Racing Development spokesman John Procida.

Danica’s the difference

But IRL President Tony George is insisting that he end up with majority control of a merged series. And now he has a new bargaining chip-in the form of an aggressive, attractive 23-year-old driver with attitude, the first woman who can truly compete for the series title. Danica Patrick has raised a publicity storm few could have forecast a short time ago.

Danica mania swept into Texas Motor Speedway June 11 as attendance for the IRL race north of Fort Worth rose from 80,000 last year to a reported 102,000. It was the largest crowd outside Indianapolis ever to watch an IRL race. TV ratings for the race on ESPN shot up 150 percent over last year, according to New Yorkbased Nielsen Media Research. The 1.0 rating garnered equates to 1.3 million viewers, the highest ever for an IRL race on ESPN, according to Nielsen.

Officials for Richmond International Raceway, which hosts an IRL race June 25, said inquiries have been up substantially since mid-May.

“We kept the call center open until 11 p.m. the night of the Texas race, and the response has been strong,” said Keith Green, the Richmond, Va., track’s director of public relations. “This is the most interest we’ve had in the race since we began hosting it in 2001.”

Despite Patrick’s 13th-place finish in the Texas race, sports marketers think Richmond could see even a bigger attendance boost than Texas did, given the added lead time. Richmond has reportedly drawn about 45,000 for each of its IRL races.

An unprecedented publicity blitz has been launched in Eastern markets like New York; Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; and Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., trumpeting the Richmond track as the only place on the East Coast where Patrick will compete.

On the track’s Web page, an image of Patrick-flanked by IRL drivers Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon-is accompanied by a countdown to the race and the words, “Yes, she’s coming to Richmond.”

IRL goes mainstream

“There’s an adage in racing that the first victory is the hardest,” said Robert Copeland, president of New York-based motorsports marketing consultancy Activision Sports. “I think Danica’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated represents the IRL’s first major [media and publicity] victory, and I think more will follow. It changes everything.”

Patrick landed on the SI cover the week after her fourth-place finish at this year’s Indianapolis 500. She’s the first full-time IRL driver ever to make SI’s cover and the first open-wheel driver since Danny Sullivan in 1985.

Even before her Rookie of the Year performance at Indianapolis, she had appeared on the covers of USA Today, Washington Post, TV Guide and other national publications. She has also been featured on ESPN’s “Sports Center,” “Good Morning America” and “Late Night with David Letterman.” Letterman co-owns the team that employs Patrick.

“The IRL had tried for years to get an audience with TV Guide and ‘Good Morning America,'” said local sports marketing consultant David Morton. “All of this came together at once with Danica.”

George wants control

While George has said publicly that open-wheel racing would be better served if the two sides came together, the most recent comments by IRL officials make it clear they think they have the upper hand now.

“I challenge you to draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and list the IRL’s assets on one side and Champ Car’s on the other, and tell me they’re equal,” said IRL spokesman Fred Nation.

“Tony and his family have invested in the Indy Racing League for 10 years so that Tony could have control of the series whose premier event is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Nation said. “It’s very important that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway controls its own destiny.”

George has little reason to cede control now.

“The IRL’s leverage in these negotiations is being driven largely now by Danica, and I think it could be sustainable,” said Zak Brown, president of Just Marketing, a local motorsports marketing consultancy. “Who would have predicted this turn of events even a couple of months ago?”

Though Honda is wielding some heavy clout, even Champ Car officials privately admit Patrick has tilted the bargaining table toward the IRL.

Champ Car spokesman Eric Mauk said it’s better to gauge where both series are in a few weeks when Indianapolis 500 furor dies down. Mauk pointed out that Patrick came up through two Champ Car feeder series, and that Champ Car continues to develop its drivers and series.

“We’re interested in continuing talks with the Indy Racing League,” Mauk said. “Coming together is an interesting idea that would benefit open-wheel racing.”

One thing Champ Car has that George would like is control of open-wheel racing’s biggest North American street race, the Long Beach Grand Prix. Last year, IRL officials expressed desire to race at Long Beach, and this spring they submitted a proposal to sanction an event there. But they were outmaneuvered by Champ Car owners, who in May bought the company that has the long-term rights to host the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Reveling in success

Despite George’s desire for control, Nation said the IRL would never slam the door on discussions with Champ Car. No sources would say, however, whether formal negotiations are in the works.

Meanwhile, IRL officials continue to push, and revel in, Patrick’s popularity.

Patrick-branded merchandise in May outsold all merchandise with all other drivers’ and teams’ likenesses combined, the IRL said, ringing the cash register for merchants, licensees and the series into the upper six figures.

Nielsen Media Research reported ratings for this year’s Indianapolis 500 on ABC were up 60 percent from last year, with a national household rating of 6.5, meaning 6.5 million households tuned in. Nielsen numbers also revealed that 18 percent of people watching TV during the Indianapolis 500 were watching the race, the event’s highest share in a decade.

“What happened at the 2005 Indianapolis 500 was the best thing that has ever happened to the Indy Racing League,” said Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage. “Naturally, Danica is a big part of that. She’s the hottest name in American sports right now.”

The Texas Motor Speedway spent $100,000 more than budgeted on print, radio and billboard advertising on Patrick-specific advertising the week leading up to the race. Gossage declined to reveal the race’s total advertising budget.

“It was a huge crowd, bigger than any Super Bowl, and people were beside themselves with Danica mania,” Gossage said. “It was as intense media coverage as we’ve seen here for an auto race. Our [media] credentials were up from 500 last year to more than 750 this year.”

Pikes Peak International Raceway President Rob Johnson said he had more calls about the upcoming IRL race in a single day shortly after the Indianapolis 500 than he’s had “in the last five years combined,” adding that inquires have been up more than 400 percent.

“People are calling wanting to know if Danica will be racing here,” Johnson said.

PPIR, south of Colorado Springs, hosts an IRL race Aug. 21, and ticket sales and press-credential requests are up “significantly,” Johnson said.

“I think you can compare what [Patrick’s] doing to what Nancy Lopez did for the LPGA,” Millsport’s Basche said. “This is a story with considerable legs.”

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