Calling All Sponsors
October 17, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The expected flow of sponsors and money to the IRNLS has amounted to nothing more than a trickle, if that. Now, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the country’s financial center of New York City have created a ripple effect that has the potential to drain the IRNLS even more.
Just ask driver Eddie Cheever Jr. and Eddie Gossage, the general manager of Texas Motor Speedway. They have seen the troubled economic waters firsthand: Cheever with his sponsor Excite and Northern Light’s rumored departure, and Gossage with ordered layoffs at TMS.
Cheever lost Excite - an Internet company – after the Indianapolis 500 in May and has yet to finalize sponsorship plans for 2001.
“It goes without saying that the tragic events in New York and Washington have made the American economy restrict itself,” said Cheever, who is driver and owner of the No. 51 Dallara-Infiniti in the IRNLS. “We’re all mourning for that. I think that the lack of sponsorship is really the last thing on everybody’s minds.
“Excite@Home is an Internet company, and Northern Light is an Internet company, and I think a lot of us bet on the Internet doing a lot better than it did. There is an enormous amount of wealth that has just disappeared like fog on a hot summer morning with Internet companies.
“We bet on the wrong horse.”
Gossage and TMS lost Excite, too, as sponsor of the season-ending race. Chevrolet quickly picked up the baton, but Gossage’s worries weren’t over. Now he’s dealing with layoffs as parent company Speedway Motorsports tries to cut $12 million in expenses the rest of this year and next.
“Corporations on Sept. 11 basically have close the doors until they sort things out to figure out what is going on, and I think the ripple effect is working its way through the economy, and it’s not a good thing for any of us,” Gossage explained. “So that’s why we had to go ahead and take the steps that we took to tray and be lean and mean for the new economy that’s coming.
“We’re dealing with the most questionable economy in my lifetime right now because of the terrorist attacks.”
Cheever, too, has had to shed his team of ancillary personnel, but the hard times also have him re-thinking his role as an owner-driver.
“I look at (former owner-driver Ricky) Rudd, what he’s done in Winston Cup, and I know that a lot of my day is spent on business issues,” Cheever said. “I should be in the gym. My schedule is to be in the gym two hours a day, and there are some days – three or four days go by – where I don’t go into the gym. I think that over time, that has a negative effect on your performance.”
The rain clouds on the economic horizon haven’t helped.
“It is on a lot of people’s minds, and it goes without saying that motor racing without corporate backing would cease to exist,” he said. “It is a very difficult time, and I say it relatively speaking, for the American economy.”
Although Cheever and Gossage are concerned about the economic environment in the coming months, both are optimistic that the IRNLS is headed in the right direction, particularly with Tony George at the helm.
“I fervently believe, and I have facts to back it up, that the Indy Racing League is the best value for any companies that want to get involved in motor racing, or, if they’ve taken the decision that they want to get involved in sports marketing, I don’t think there’s a better value than the Indy Racing League,” Cheever said. “Our attendance has grown dramatically this year. We have a great television package. The racing is, I truly believe, second to none - often, too exciting, especially from where I’ve been sitting. But we’re getting there.
“I’m very confident Tony George’s plan is working out. There will be bumps in the road, but when I sit here and think of the fact that we have not found the right corporate sponsor yet, it is a very small thing when you consider all the tragedy that has gone through all of America and, I would say, most of the civilized world over the last few weeks. So I am confident that we will get what we need.”
Gossage has the same positive outlook, but he already sees that the tide is turning in favor of the IRNLS.
“It’s clear to me that the No. 1 form of open-wheel racing in America is the Indy Racing League, and I think sponsors are coming, and we just have to give the series time to mature,” Gossage said. “These drivers and teams are so accessible, so hungry, so friendly it reminds me of very much of where Winston Cup racing was 15 years or so ago, and it was a time of great growth, and it was a very prosperous time for Winston Cup racing as it went into an incredible growth curve, and I think we’re just at the start of that growth curve for the Indy Racing League.”
Ron Green, the IRNLS director of public relations, agrees.
“As we enter this new economy, this changing economy for sure, the league feels very confident through Tony George’s philosophy of how he created and designed this league that we’re – if there are any sponsors that are going to enter motorsports – we are definitely a viable option because of our formula,” Green said. “It’s a very cost-effective formula. It is cheaper: One year’s budget to compete in the Indy Racing League is much, much cheaper than the other major forms of motorsports.
“So, we feel our teams will be competitive in competing for the sponsorship dollars that may exist in the coming years.”
If nothing else, the IRNLS is not short on optimism. The coming months will see if the positive assessments are correct or just a pipe dream.