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While Indy Racing League driver Danica Patrick was driving her new race car up and down a runway at the Indianapolis International Airport this morning, Andretti Green Racing co-owner Michael Andretti was watching with a stern look on his face.
The cameras of about a dozen photographers and the videographers of four local TV stations were focused on Patrick, the new paint scheme of her car, and her new sponsor, Motorola partner Boost Mobile (a division of Sprint Nextel). It was a lot of show-and-tell, but for Andretti it was all business.
AGR is one of the few IRL teams hanging tough with corporate sponsors—probably enough to pay all the bills and make a few investments toward the future. In addition to Boost, AGR recently signed a deal with Venom Energy Drink—which will be the primary sponsor for Michael’s son, Marco. Of course, Motorola and 7-11 are the big dogs of AGR’s sponsors.
The Venom and Boost deals are one-year pacts, and Andretti talks like a man who knows his work to secure the team’s long-term future is not—and may never be—done.
“We’re always thinking business and trying to make sure we get our sponsors as much exposure as possible,” Andretti said. “In today’s economic climate you don’t even get your foot in the door unless you immediately show a return on investment.”
The trick is, Andretti said, every sponsor wants something different. “Some want business-to-business, others want straight exposure others are seeking an entertainment factor. But that’s the uniqueness of this sport. It can deliver so many different things to corporate partners.”
Andretti’s last answer, prompted another question. Which is, what does he think about the league’s financial health and viability.
“I feel very bullish about it,” Andretti said. “The model they now have is like the old CART model, with a mix of road and oval racing, which was not a bad model.”
Andretti also gave approval to IRL Chairman Tony George’s move to put the league’s races on Versus cable channel.
“The Versus thing is in the early stages, but the league had to have a [TV] partner where the Indy Racing League is one of three or four major sports properties that [the network] has a vested interest in seeing succeed. Only then will you get the promotion the series’ needs. That just wasn’t going to happen with the previous arrangement.”
The IRL is in a good position to weather the current economic downturn, Andretti said. “We were already mean and lean,” he said. “We’re not fat and happy like NASCAR has become.”
Andretti also feels good about the league’s expansion efforts, especially in China. He is less thrilled about Brazil.
“We have to evaluate this market by market,” Andretti said. “I’m sure our sponsors would want to be in China. Just about every major, international company either has operations or partners in China.”
As for ever driving again, even at Indianapolis, Andretti didn’t hesitate.
“Nope, I’m done,” he said. “The one time was a unique opportunity to race with my son. But I’ll never race a car again.”