Indy Racing League founder Tony George dropped a bombshell in December when he told an industry group that he would shut down
the open-wheel series if it didn’t break into the black soon.
When pressed about the possibility of being profitable by 2013, George responded, ""It has to be, or or there won’t
2013. We expect a return on that investment."
The remark before the Sports Business Journal Motorsports Marketing Forum in New York
was scarcely reported outside racing circles and received virtually no attention from Indianapolis media.
Now racing analysts wonder what would happen to the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway if the IRL were to collapse.
"It”s difficult to envision the Indianapolis 500 without a supporting series," said Tim Frost, president of Frost
a Chicago-based business consultancy. "I’m not sure any of us know what would happen if Tony George pulled the
plug on the
Indy Racing League. I can tell you, it wouldn’t be good."
Most analysts are optimistic George will hit the goal and see the series thrive. Even Frost rates the IRL’s chances of reaching
profitability within four years at around 70 percent—a figure other analysts agree is reasonable.
It’s been an uphill battle. Analysts estimate George has poured more than $250 million into the series in its 13 seasons.
When asked in the New York forum if the league had turned a profit, George responded, "Not yet."
IRL lieutenants are preparing for an all-out sales and marketing assault during one of the worst economic downturns since
the Great Depression. The marketers are counting on last year’s unification with rival open-wheel series CART, and a three-year
centennial celebration surrounding the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indianapolis 500 that starts this year, to rev the
One thing is certain: Results of the campaign will profoundly affect open-wheel racing worldwide, not to mention in Indiana.
"We’re talking about tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact," said Tom
Indiana Motorsports Association executive director. "We find new racing-related companies in Indiana every day."
If the IRL doesn’t turn a profit in the next four years and George keeps his word, the Speedway would face interesting options.
George, who is also IMS chairman, could maintain the Indianapolis 500 as a stand-alone open-wheel event, or make it part of
an open-wheel series that starts in the wake of IRL’s death. Both options seem unlikely.
The other option would be to join Formula One. As strange as the idea might sound, the Indianapolis 500 was a fixture on the
F1 calendar from 1950-60, though most of the drivers who raced here didn’t compete in many other F1 races.
"If the IRL went away, they wouldn’t have tumbleweeds blowing down the front stretch," Frost said. "It’s just
too much of
a valued fixed asset to let sit during May."
The Allstate 400 at the Brickyard NASCAR race and the MotoGP motorcycle race are thought to bring in a combined $35 million
to $50 million in revenue, but motorsports analysts said those races don’t hold a candle to the revenue generated by the Indianapolis
The Speedway doesn’t release the number, but ticket sales are just the tip of the iceberg. Whatever the number, it’s augmented
by hospitality, merchandise and concession sales during almost the entire month of May, Frost said.
Progress and skepticism
While the IRL has gained some traction in the last year, skepticism abounds about its future.
"I’m not sure I’d bet they’ll be in the black within four years," said Dennis McAlpine, a motorsports financial
in New York.
However, Terry Angstadt, president of IRL’s Commercial Division, pointed out that the series has signed five major sponsors
this year: Apex Brasil, Izod, Hot Wheels, Orbitz and The National Guard. The Apex, Izod and Hot Wheels deals now constitute
three of the series’ five biggest sponsors, Angstadt said, along with Honda and Firestone.
Angstadt said there’s a 70-percent chance the league could sign a title sponsor for 2010. IRL officials hope for a deal worth
at least $10 million a year.
Zak Brown, whose locally based motorsports marketing firm, Just Marketing International, has been hired by the league to hunt
for title sponsors, said, "I think that deal could be enough to put the league at or very near profitability."
While the current economic swoon has dramatically slowed the search for a title sponsor, Brown feels confident one will be
signed well in advance of George’s ultimatum date.
"I’ll quit the sport if we don’t have a title sponsor by 2013," said Brown, whose company represents several of
sponsors in NASCAR and F1. "This series has too much going for it."
Brown counts the drivers and their personalities, on-track competitiveness, racing venues and the Indianapolis 500 chief among
the assets that will sustain the IRL.
Sponsorship growth isn’t the only thing pointing toward increased IRL revenue, Angstadt said. New races are another potential
revenue source. He said venues in Houston; Cleveland; Birmingham, Ala.; Brazil and China are showing strong interest in the
Can Indy 500 save IRL?
Doug Boles, formerly a part owner of an IRL team, thinks the IRL is heading in the right direction, unlike its former rival,
A bitter dispute with CART over the governance and direction of open-wheel racing led to the creation of the IRL in 1996.
It didn’t take long for CART to suffer the consequences. The series, which was headquartered in Indianapolis and had roughly
the same number of races the IRL does now, racked up as much as $143.3 million in annual expenses and made a profit only once
in its last eight seasons.
CART hemorrhaged as the series bought TV time for its races, promoted its own races and subsidized teams. By 2003, losses
had shot to a whopping $93.6 million.
"The Indy Racing League doesn’t pay to promote races, and has never had to buy TV time," Boles said. "Tony
George has made
the decision to financially support some teams, but that is way down from years past."
In contrast to CART’s TV deal, ESPN/ ABC paid the IRL $10 million annually for the right to air its races, motorsports business
experts said. The IRL forged a new 10-year TV pact following last season, with Versus airing 12 races and ABC/ESPN carrying
five races, including the Indianapolis 500. That contract is valued at slightly less than the previous deal, but far ahead
of where CART was in its last few years.
Boles, who was director of motorsports development under former Mayor Steve Goldsmith, thinks the Indianapolis 500 will drive
the IRL to profitability.
"In a bad year, the Indianapolis 500 brings in 50 percent more hospitality revenue than the Brickyard 400," Boles
a good year, it brings in two and a half times as much. That’s how big an event the Indianapolis 500 is."
Boles thinks Indianapolis 500 revenue alone could offset the IRL’s expenses.
"You can make a pretty stout argument that it makes sense for Tony to lose money on the IRL," Boles said. "With
the IRL in
place, Tony can go to bed at night knowing he’s going to have a product at the Speedway he controls, with no fiascos like
you saw at the  F1 race. It’s a loss leader to attract people to the store."
Frost isn’t as sure.
He estimates the IRL’s annual expenses at $50 million to $70 million, not including the Indianapolis 500. "That’s a different
animal altogether," he said.
"It brings in a great deal of money, but it also carries significant operational expenses," Frost said. Still, he
million to $25 million in profit from the month of May isn’t unreasonable.
One thing is certain. The Indianapolis 500 remains at the center of the debate about open-wheel racing. Most analysts agree
the event remains the foundation on which the future of the sport rests.