Why on earth is GM joining IndyCar?

More than a few people today might be asking, “Why is General Motors’ entering the IndyCar Series as an engine supplier in 2012?”

The official announcement will be made at 10 a.m. Friday at the Speedway’s museum.

I’m not trying to throw gas on the smoldering war between the Champ Car holdouts and IndyCar loyalists. But with the IndyCar Series still losing money and struggling with attendance and TV ratings, it’s a legitimate question.

The hiring of Randy Bernard last year as IndyCar’s boss has to be a big factor.

Bernard’s tireless lobbying of GM and others has helped build some credibility for this league. And in light of the series’ tepid financial situation, I’d say GM thinks pretty highly of the man his detractors call Ropin’ Randy. They’re clearly betting on him to succeed.

Many, myself included, have wanted to see more progress for the series before giving Bernard high marks. Adding Chevrolet as an engine maker in 2012 certainly counts as a solid step in the right direction. It can no longer be said that Bernard hasn’t done anything significant.

Chevy’s participation in NASCAR gives us some hints about why the carmaker is joining IndyCar.

Concerning Chevrolet’s business with NASCAR, Chevrolet U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports Jim Campbell said the manufacturer looks for three things when working with sanctioning bodies: It wants the series to use biofuels, to use relevant technologies that can move between the production side and the racing side without a lot of extra expense, and, of course, brand identity.

Campbell must think the IndyCar Series will deliver those things.

Here’s another clue as to why GM wants to be a part of the open-wheel series. Chevy Racing Manager Terry Dolan said it’s not all about television ratings and attendance numbers, adding that despite declines in both categories this year, NASCAR has still delivered tremendous value for GM.

“NASCAR provides scale and reach to the public for us to have a marketing opportunity,” Dolan told reporters recently at Texas Motor Speedway. “While it’s true that ratings and attendance have been impacted, our actual connectivity with the consumers, … the amount of consumers that connect with us looking for additional product information, our numbers are actually up year over year.”

From that, I take that Chevy officials think the IndyCar Series will also offer significant connectivity to consumers. It also shows that Chevrolet is seeking a marketing opportunity. That may be a no-brainer, but it’s significant for the IndyCar Series, which is looking desperately for corporate partners who will help take the series’ message to the masses.

All this shows that Bernard has done a masterful job of selling the IndyCar Series and his vision of it.

And remember, GM isn’t doing this for free. The entry effort, according to motorsports business experts, will cost GM at least $25 million.

Now comes the hard part. Bernard has to make it pay—for the series and its new partner.

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