Something was missing at the Milwaukee IndyFest this past weekend. It wasn't the racing; that was excellent. There were passes throughout the field, and drivers were dirt-tracking the corners. It wasn't the strategy. Pit strategy put A.J. Foyt Racing's Takuma Sato in front of the pack and allowed Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay to take advantage of a late yellow flag to move to the lead and victory. It wasn't the show. The promoters, Andretti Sports Marketing, made both Friday and Saturday a festival of, well, festivals. Bands played, amusement rides whirled, and the fans got close to the drivers. Still, one glaring omission cast a dark shadow over this otherwise sunny race. Sponsorship.
I know what you are going to say: there were DHL, RC Cola and Sun Drop banners everywhere. Agreed, but those are not the deep-pocketed sugar daddies that all events and series need. The name Milwaukee IndyFest says it all. The event had no title sponsor. A title sponsor buys the rights to the event, and the promoter uses the cash to do two things: promote the event and put cash in his pocket. Everybody has to eat, or the show will not go on.
What makes Subway, Bank of America, Sylvania, Geico, Coca-Cola, Fed-Ex, and other decidedly non-automotive sponsors plunk down millions of dollars to attach themselves to the mind-numbingly similar races put on by the stock cars? If you will pardon the vernacular, the answer is asses and eyes. Those races have people in the seats at the track and viewers sitting at home in front of the TV. Currently, IndyCar has neither.
The IZOD IndyCar Series does have a title sponsor in IZOD that not only wants out but also refuses to activate that sponsorship in any meaningful way from week to week. Does IndyCar need a new series sponsor? Absolutely it does. Are there any open wallets out there? The cellular giant Verizon is a name that keeps coming up, but who knows? It has to make sense from a business perspective. The value for Verizon is quite likely a business-to-business relationship. The people who inhabit those corporate chalets and suites are business partners for the sponsors. In other words, the sponsors make money off of these people. And while the corporate kingpins certainly want the hoi polloi in the stands and watching on TV to use their products, this sell is often secondary to the business-to-business connection.
The solutions are obvious, though. The series needs increased sponsorship, higher ratings, and bigger gates. The road map to get there is the problem. It is sad to watch a once-proud series lose its way like a race team that just can't find the right set-up. The hope is that the series does not lose its direction so badly that it can't find its way home.