January 11, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The country’s troubled economy and Northern Light’s bleak financial picture were blamed for the break-up. These are difficult times for struggling companies to spend millions of dollars on an auto racing sponsorship when red ink is spilling out the door. Unfortunately for the IRL, this is the second title sponsor to run away poor. Pep Boys also was forced to bail out of its IRL deal in 1999 after Manny, Moe and Jack found themselves in financial ruin.
So it looks as if the IRL will run the 2002 campaign without a title backer, an expensive proposition to say the least. While the series has momentum on its side in the open-wheel war and a strong 15-race schedule in place, sponsorships are in short supply. While the league touts its corporate relationships with companies such as Marlboro, Firestone, Infiniti, Red Bull and Hollywood, the fact is less than half of the teams set to run the full circuit have major sponsors. And less than half of the 15 races on this year’s slate boast title sponsorships at this point.
It’s not much better over in the CART series. While FedEx is secure as the title sponsor for another few years, CART teams are also struggling to find appropriate backing for the coming season. Bobby Rahal will run a one-car operation due to the lack of corporate funding while other team owners are desperately trying to put together something as the season opener begins to draw near.
Sponsor problems aren’t limited to the open-wheel set either. There are some high-profile teams and drivers in NASCAR-land sweating things out this offseason.
Andy Petree’s No. 33 Winston Cup team doesn’t have a sponsor and, although on NASCAR’s Winner’s Circle program after Joe Nemechek drove the car to victory this past season, may run Daytona and that’s it. The venerable Joe Ruttman, a standout in the Craftsman Truck Series, may be walking around Daytona unemployed if a potential sponsor isn’t found for the Robert Yates team he’s penciled in to drive for this season. Elton Sawyer’s Busch team closed when Starter pulled out of its sponsorship deal leaving the veteran driver out of work. Kevin LePage, Mike Wallace, and Ron Hornaday are also on the outside looking in right now, three more examples of the tight market.
And as might be expected, the sponsorship dollar squeeze has a trickle down effect on the racing world. While NASCAR, CART and the IRL are experiencing a slowdown in corporate funding, so too are the ASA, ARCA, Outlaws and the NHRA.
The good news is that despite the tightening of marketing budgets and the reduced amount of spending going on, the overall economic picture for motorsports is bright. Fact is racing has been through this before. This isn’t the first time the United States has been at war, suffered through a recession and dealt with the reality of a slowed economy. Motorsports survived those hard times and will carry on through the current environment. Compared to some of the other major sports, racing is downright healthy. Marketing, advertising and sponsorship dollars will eventually come back when things start to right themselves, just as they always do.
But the light down at the far end of the tunnel is tough to see right now for the many teams and drivers standing in the dark.