IRL: Open-Wheel Racing Summit roundup

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IRL: Open-Wheel Racing Summit roundup

INDIANAPOLIS - SportsBusiness Journal held the second annual Open-Wheel Racing Summit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday and Wednesday, taking over the fourth floor Media Center that overlooks the 2.5-mile historic oval's front ...

INDIANAPOLIS - SportsBusiness Journal held the second annual Open-Wheel Racing Summit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday and Wednesday, taking over the fourth floor Media Center that overlooks the 2.5-mile historic oval's front straight.

With a complete program dedicated to furthering the cause of open wheel racing, two full days were needed to cover all the major topics. And networking.

Bill King, Kevin Savoree and Ken Ungar.
Photo by Earl Ma.
The first order of business from Bill King, senior writer for SportsBusiness Journal and moderator for the event, was to announce his pleasure at the full room and to acknowledge that, despite stating they would be on various panels, three representatives of Championship Auto Racing Teams had canceled just the night before. No explanation was given by either Champ Car representatives or by Open-Wheel Summit coordinators.

Ben Reiling, senior manager for motorsports marketing at The Coca Cola Company was the first speaker, delineating the firm's cooperative venture between its PowerAde brand and the National Hot Rod Association. Reiling discussed how the agreement came together and the various tenets and responsibilities of both parties. It was a fascinating presentation, culminating in the showing of fun advertising videos the Coca Cola firm designed to highlight their NHRA involvement.

Next up was an important seminar on activating sponsorship. The round- table featured Mark Driscoll, chairman of Ignition, Inc., Denny Young, president of Elevation Motorsports, Dana Arnold, who is the central region vice president for Bombardier and Mike Bucek, vice president of sales and business development for the Indy Racing League.

This quartet dwelled heavily on the manner in which sponsorship activation can and should be taken and how to attract beneficial partners to open wheel racing. "It's not about the dollars being spent," Young emphasized. "It's understanding the benefits of sponsorship and balancing cost and effect." Bucek stressed the need to cross-pollinate and to create a sense of family with partners, both business-to-business and consumer-oriented.

Enhancing relationships is the key to a good and long-lasting sponsorship arrangement, Arnold stated. "You must maintain access" for partners, he noted. Driscoll stressed the personal touch and sampling, noting that Budweiser's O'Doul's non-alcoholic beer overcame Miller's Sharp brand with sampling, not advertising. He also said the initial results were poor as marketers failed to deliver an icy cold product to sample, a faux pas he helped change and, to his delight, saw his product take over the market.

After a lunch break, it was time to discuss what teams can do to make their ownership more valuable. On the panel were Doug Boles, COO and co-owner of Panther Racing, Tom Garfinkel , vice president of Chip Ganassi Racing, Kevin Savoree, who is co-owner for Andretti Green Racing and Ken Ungar, senior vice president for business affairs of the Indy Racing League.

J. Douglas Boles and Tom Garfinkel.
Photo by Earl Ma.
These gentlemen spoke of creating the value of a team and looking at where that value may derive from. "Teams are the lifeblood of any racing series," Ungar declared. "They are the core product." Garfinkel maintained the long-term relationship between his team and Target Stores is valuable to both through vendor partner relationships. Savoree stressed the national saturation of his team's many partners and the need to have drivers who can interact outside the car.

The familial nature of motorsports relationships was one that all four panelists spoke about with Boles noting that keeping passion for the sport is important. Boles just stated the obvious about keeping sponsors happy: "winning is the best way" to keep them around. (CART's John Lopes was scheduled for this discussion.)

It was then time to delve into brand extension for manufacturers. While David Clare of CART was to be part of this panel, his place was taken by Les Unger, motorsports manager for Toyota. Also on the panel were Herb Fishel, executive director of GM Racing, Al Speyer, executive director, motorsports for Bridgestone-Firestone North America and Dan Davis, director for Ford Racing Technology.

The latter two panel members, of course, have ties to CART with Bridgestone- Firestone sole tire supplier to CART (Bridgestone Potenza) and the Indy Racing League (Firestone Firehawk). Ford-Cosworth is the lone engine supplier to the Champ Car World Series this year and next. Theirs was a lively discussion

Davis noted "Our customers are race fans. Over 50% of Ford buyers are race fans and, with 40 million car buyers" out there, Ford has 20 million fans in its corner. The firm, of course, does supply race engines for grass roots open wheel series such as Davis' pet project, the Ford Focus midget series with its sealed, one season motors. In addition, Ford is in all the grass roots and national NASCAR closed-wheel series, regional and national midget, sprint and SilverCrown open wheel competition.

Unger's firm has entered the IndyCar Series with a bang, winning the first race of the season with rookie Scott Dixon's #9 Target Panoz G Force/Toyota and owning pole position for the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, thanks to two-time defending victor Helio Castroneves' #3 Dallara/Toyota from Marlboro Team Penske. "We have expanded our base step by step since the mid-80s," Unger said, "hopefully on to stock cars in the future."

"We're all suppliers of products critical to race car performance," stated Speyer. "Consumers can relate to it and racing is, pretty much a 'given' for us, to extend our brands and build relationships." Herb Fishel, leaving his longtime post as head of GM Racing on September 1st agreed, "We participate as a business proposition for market share," noting the Indy 500 is a premier event and facility with all the right stuff. "We get extremely valuable engineering and marketing information from" this race. GM's biggest challenge in open wheel racing, Fishel said, is to "keep Sam Hornish" from going to stock cars.

Eddie Gossage, Brett Shelton and Christopher J. Lencheski.
Photo by Earl Ma.
The final roundtable discussion was all about racing promotion, with Eddie Gossage of Texas Motor Speedway, Brett Shelton from Michigan International Speedway and Chris Lencheski, founder of National Grand Prix Holdings (the Washington, DC American LeMans Series race promoter) on the panel. With a prod from Racer magazine publisher Paul Pfanner, the group discussed the open wheel racing fan and where that person comes from, how that person continues to attend races.

Shelton noted that interest open wheel racing has decreased since the 1992- 94 era when the greats of the sport retired: Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Bobby and Al Unser, Gordon Johncock. Those drivers were household names and, aside from the appearance of Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr., there have been few to take their places.

"We need to rejuvenate this arena and create new driver heroes," Shelton said. He also noted that attendance for his IndyCar Series race, which debuted last season, is just about 25,000 less than the massive race day crowd that shows up for his NASCAR events. He is satisfied by that level of fan participation.

Gossage called his first IRL race of the 2003 season "both a blessing and a curse," coming right after the month of May. "Our season tickets are a customer loyalty program with the best seats and special promotions. Our fans have really gotten into the Indy Racing League and are happy with our two events." Shelton noted most of the fans at his circuit arrive in threes or more. "Most of them are invited" to races and that builds a significant fan base.

The Open-Wheel Racing Summit's first day ended with a networking get- together at Bombardier's fifth floor Pagoda suite.

Wednesday morning's program began with "Tales from the Editor's Notebook," a selection of stories told by National Speed Sport News publisher and editor emeritus Chris Economaki. It was a delightful way to start the day as Economaki, one of the pioneer broadcasters for motorsports spoke of the state fairs that occurred around the country, spawning the wide range of grass roots open wheel racing that still exists today. "There would be 80- 90 state fairs each year," a perfect way for racing to gain a toehold in the American heartland.

While more participants were expected for the television and new media reach, Doug Sellars from Speed Channel and Buddy McAtee of IMS broadcasting talked about their efforts to enhance programming and enliven their shows, in an effort to bring the fan into the car. Sellars showed clips of Champ Car's promotional video that featured stalwart Paul Tracy from the time he started to today. It was great fun to see the changes in Tracy's appearance over the years. McAtee defended the IRL's need to occasionally cut out the victory celebration, noting that keeping IndyCar races on over- the-air broadcast sometimes meant making hard choices.

Ladder systems were the next agenda, with Rollie Helmling of USAC, Steve Johnson from SCCA, Donn Gurney of Race Legends and Roger Bailey, progenitor of the Infiniti Pro Series at the table. Vicki O'Connor of the Toyota Atlantic Series was supposed to be part of this group. Keeping open wheel racers in the fold was a major part of the discussion, as was the methodology of adding diversity to racing at every level of the sport.

For Bailey, the biggest problem he faces in growing the Infiniti Pro Series isn't the desire to compete, but the ability to gain sufficient funds for the series which, he says, can be done for between $8-850,000 annually. Johnson's group, of course, brings new drivers up through SCCA club racing and the vast majority of amateur classes are open wheel.

Roger Bailey and Rollie Helmling.
Photo by Earl Ma.
Helmling's USAC midget and sprint series have graduated drivers through the ranks including current NASCAR champ Tony Stewart and four-time titleholder Jeff Gordon. Keeping such drivers in the open wheel ranks is difficult with the popularity of NASCAR, he allowed, but USAC is pleased to be the breeding ground for exceptional talent in racing. Gurney appealed to all to keep the ranks of grass roots racing popular and not to expect all to graduate from one step to another. Only the few make it.

Following lunch, physicians took center stage. Dr. Henry Bock from IMS and the Indy Racing League, CART stalwarts Dr. Steve Olvey and Dr. Terry Trammell, and Dr. John Melvin, prominent in working to induce safety measures throughout motorsports all took to the dais.

This quartet discussed everything from the use of HANS (head and neck support) to treatment of drivers for fractures, on-site medical facilities (or lack of same) and the need to continue safety upgrades at all circuits, whether they be for open or closed wheel use. For a long time, motorsports had little injury and/or death, as safety to both cars and circuits increased. There's still a lot more to do, these gentlemen agree, but with the black boxes currently in IRL and Champ cars they can get much more feedback and knowledge to enhance their studies of injury and driver fitness.

Altogether, the 2nd SportsBusiness Open-Wheel Summit was a success as it offered diversity of opinion and knowledge. Would it have been even better had Champ Car elected to send their representatives as scheduled? We'll never know.

Editor's Note:
Motorsport.com was proud to have been one of the Media partners for the Open-Wheel Racing Summit.

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Series AUTOMOTIVE , F1 , INDYCAR , SCCA , USAC , WOO