IRL: 2001 season review

INDIANAPOLIS, (October 9, 2001) -- As the checkered flag drops on the 2001 season, the Indy Racing League is celebrating its most successful year to date, a year that brought a new young champion, exciting events in new cities, four sellout races,...

INDIANAPOLIS, (October 9, 2001) -- As the checkered flag drops on the 2001 season, the Indy Racing League is celebrating its most successful year to date, a year that brought a new young champion, exciting events in new cities, four sellout races, intense on-track competition and increased sponsorship.

"This has been a great year for America's open wheel racing series," said Anton H. "Tony" George, president and chief executive officer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the Indy Racing League. "We're proving that the concept of open-wheel, oval-track racing is still a part of America's motorsports culture. We've attracted new fans this year. We've sold out races. We've had exciting on-track competition. And, we seen new young talent join our veterans and compete wheel-to-wheel. When the IRL was founded, our goal was to preserve the tradition of American open-wheel, oval-track racing and keep it affordable for the fans, competitors and sponsors. This year has really been a milestone in achieving that goal." The Indy Racing League embarked on the 2001 season with a new strategy in mind - bring Indy Racing back to its Midwestern roots, promote the events aggressively to families in local markets, encourage wheel-to-wheel competition, drive visibility through a strong television package and attract new sponsors.

The strategy has paid off. It sold out four events - Indianapolis, Nashville, Kansas City and Chicago - and exceeded its increased attendance goal of 15 percent at the other nine events on the schedule. The expanded schedule has contributed to this attendance growth. While the IRL traveled to six new markets in 2001, including Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Miami, Nashville and Richmond, it is focusing its efforts on growing the fan base in the Midwest where open wheel racing has strong roots. Next year, the IRL will add races in Nazareth, Penn., and Brooklyn, Mich. and Fontana, Calf. to the schedule, all cities with histories of open-wheel racing. In all, the IRL will race at eight facilities owned by International Speedway Corporation in 2002.

On the track, the competition is fierce. IRL veterans such as Eddie Cheever, Jr., Al Unser, Jr., Scott Sharp, Robbie Buhl, Greg Ray and Buddy Lazier led the pack while young guns like Sam Hornish, Airton Dare, Felipe Giaffone, Sarah Fisher and Jaques Lazier frequently challenged - and took - the lead.

During the 13-race season, there were eight different winners, including three first-time winners. The average margin of victory was 4.9897 seconds, while in the closest race of the season, Eddie Cheever edged out Sam Hornish at Kansas City to win by only .1976. There were 108 lead changes during the season, but Sam Hornish dominated the front of the field, leading a total of 650 laps. In the end, the championship was taken home by series' sophomore, Sam Hornish, Jr., driving the Pennzoil Panther car to become the youngest champion in the history of open wheel racing.

Fans in the stands weren't the only ones watching the Indy Racing League. In 2001, the hours of television programming increased 200 percent over the previous year, topping more than 300 total hours. Under the expanded ABC and ESPN partnership, the IRL action reached 45 percent more homes and 40 percent more viewers in 2001. In 2002, the IRL expects this growth to continue, increasing households an additional 41 percent and viewers some 42 percent. Additional visibility is delivered through an IRL infomercial offering special family four packs at select tracks. Merchandise sales are also on the rise, growing 187 percent in 2001.

Fans also are flooding indyracing.com, bringing new exposure for the series, sponsors and drivers. Traffic on indyracing.com surpassed 100 million hits in the month of May alone and topped 19 million hits on Pole Day. It averaged more than seven million hits per event for 13 events, and delivered more than 360 million hits through August, an increase of 2,387 percent. The number of unique visitors to indyracing.com is over one million per month.

Sponsors are paying attention, too. The IRL welcomed many new sponsors in 2001, including consumer products companies, entertainment companies and major retailers. New brand names that have joined the IRL include Budweiser, Proctor & Gamble, Kroger, Abercrombie and Fitch, TV Guide, VH1 and Nokia. Longtime sponsors, such as Delphi, Pennzoil, Infiniti, WorldCom, Sprint, Firestone, Menards, MBNA, Coors Light, EPSON and General Motors, continue to see their investment increase.

In 2001, sponsors will receive estimated exposure in the race broadcast alone valued at more than $193 million, an increase from $175 million in exposure in 2000. For all televised IRL activities, the total exposure in the 2001 season soars to an estimated $228 million.

The IRL is attracting new fans and sponsors with an aggressive marketing campaign that includes local promotion in each market and a national ad campaign featuring John Mellencamp. The campaign, "Take a Ride With Us", features the Indiana native and longtime Indy Racing fan with in a :30 TV spot filmed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Model Elaine Irwin Mellencamp is the official spokesperson for the IRL, and was the series' first female pace car driver at the Indianapolis 500. An IRL showcar supports the effort at each stop on the "Cuttin' Heads" tour as it travels around the country. In addition, a 30-minute infomercial is running in major markets, offering a popular "Family Four Pak" for race weekends. Merchandise Sales for the 2001 season are up 187%, Bruce Lynch-Director of Retail Sales and Operations, is forecasting a three-fold increase by year-end. "Driver Specific" merchandise is the category with the most gains with die-cast cars and hats leading the way. According to merchandise sales, Sarah Fisher, Sam Hornish, and Al Unser Jr. lead driver popularity with Hornish gaining one position this season.

George plans to keep the Indy Racing League and the Northern Light Series growing through strong fan-based outreach efforts in race markets, the addition of races in new markets, continued improvements in sponsor value, the attraction of new drivers and returning stars, and enhancements to the on-track competition.

Over the next five years, the Indy Racing League's goals include increasing the fan base by two million fans per year; increasing TV ratings on a consistent basis; having a driver in the top 50 in "Q" ratings; generating more than $1 billion in sponsor support; and creating a true ladder for driver development. The IRL is already well on its way to these goals. The 2002 schedule will include 14 races with new events in Michigan and Pennsylvania, longtime strongholds of open-wheel racing. It also will feature expanded television coverage, with the extension of the agreement with ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 through 2007 and the addition of more daily programming throughout the season and 10 races live on ABC.

There also are exciting developments on the track. Chevrolet is returning to open-wheel racing in 2002, bringing a new powerful engine and the familiar red "bow-tie" to the series. It will promote its involvement with an extensive national marketing campaign and three-year sponsorship of the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Infiniti is also getting in the action, sponsoring the Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series set to debut next year. The development series will run Infiniti Q45 engines and Dallara Automobili chassis in select events next season. In 2003, Toyota will join the competition with an aggressive on-track presence and marketing program.

The IRL expects to unveil its complete 2002 program in the coming months, building on the strong foundation laid in 2001.

"We've made great strides in six years, and each year we deliver a better product for our fans and a better value for our sponsors," said George. "While the 2001 season was one of many successes, we believe that 2002 will be even more exciting."

-IRNLS/IMS-

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About this article
Series Automotive , IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Robbie Buhl , Scott Sharp , Airton Daré , Jaques Lazier  , Al Unser , Sam Hornis