Izod signs deal despite Tony George’s dismissal

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IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay said that his early impression of Izod marketing chief Mike Kelly was that he was “crazy.”

I’m pretty sure he meant that in a good way when he used the term at yesterday’s press conference announcing Izod as the new title sponsor of the Indy Racing League—now Izod IndyCar Series.

As in “crazy” with excitement, energy and ideas for the league. Others who are not so optimistic about the open-wheel racing series’ future might just say Kelly and his Izod clan are plain loco.
After all, TV ratings are down 28 percent (a lot more if you just look at Versus), attendance is static at best and car count for next year is already being questioned. It’s become clear that all the Danica-mania in the world alone isn’t going to save this series.

And if all the above didn’t give Izod officials pause, surely the unceremonious deportation of the series’ iconic leader, Tony George, in the midst of the title sponsorship negotiations did.

To the contrary, Kelly said George’s departure had little impact on title sponsorship negotiations. So maybe Izod joined because George was dethroned. Kelly denied that.

The IndyCar Series’ new czar, Jeff Belskus didn’t seek any credit for the deal, and Kelly didn’t give him much. In fact, Kelly said Izod executives have only met Belskus twice.

“Our contact was always with the day-to-day guys; (series president of racing operations) Brian Barnhart and (series president of commercial division) Terry Angstadt,” Kelly said. “We were very impressed with their vision for the series.”

Izod’s claims seem a little strange given George’s extraordinary efforts to put Izod’s chosen child—Hunter-Reay—in a race car this past season. For a while, Hunter-Reay even piloted a car for George’s Vision racing team.

Some within the series’ said Barnhart and Angstadt did just enough to convince Izod officials that the series would continue to get the funding to keep running despite George’s departure. Izod officials were also sold on being a cornerstone that would help put the IndyCar Series over the top financially.

Kelly admitted that the down economy allowed Izod to afford the deal, which he indicated could quickly become a bargain. “What other sporting property could we put our name on like this?” Kelly mused.

In any event, Izod became the third title sponsor in the series’ history after Honda and Bridgestone/Firestone—who were also heavily pursued by IndyCar officials—took a pass.

But now that the six-year deal with Izod is signed, it doesn’t mean the pressure is off those charged with operating the open-wheel series.

Izod officials may be a little off-the-wall, but they’re not crazy enough to sign a contract that isn’t loaded with out-clauses.

Sources familiar with the deal said if certain metrics concerning number of races held annually, TV ratings, attendance and car count among other things aren’t met, there are triggers in the contract that will allow Izod to decrease its financial pay-out or opt out of the contract all together.

So now the real work begins. And from the looks of the piles of leftover Izod-IndyCar Series apparel at Carson Pirie Scott in downtown Indy this week—long-sleeve shirts marked down from $60 to less than $5—I’d say both sides have their work cut out for them.

Ladies and gentlemen … start your engines.

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