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Jensen: Atlantic teams eye move to Indy Lights
There's no doubt that the international economic crisis is having a negative effect on the world of motorsport:

FIA czar Max Mosley met this week with Ferrari chair Luca di Montezemolo, who represented the new Formula One Teams' Association, to discuss cost cutting. Mosley is frantic that F1 participants will soon have to make do with only dozens of millions of dollars instead of the hundreds of millions they're used to and that some will go out of business as a result.

NASCAR sponsorship became the subject of major news stories this past week. Some smaller teams say they have no sponsorship guaranteed for next season while other, multi-car teams have only enough for one or two cars. Short fields are expected next year.

The commercial director of the Indy Racing League told the Indianapolis Star this week that one of the two potential title sponsors he'd been negotiating with for 2009 had called off the talks for financial reasons. That was for the series; sponsors for the cars are another matter. Even shorter fields are expected.

Who really knows what the situation is at the grassroots level? Local racers depend on local sponsorship – as do the speedways where they race – and those deals are usually done in the run-up to the new season. But prospects don't appear to be too good.

So it's all doom and gloom out there, right?

Not so fast, says racing team owner Eric Jensen of Toronto, who plans to run cars and drivers in – wait for it – three professional series this year and next: the A1 Grand Prix winter series and Formula BMW and Formula Atlantic next summer.

And he maintains – just as our Prime Minister suggested several weeks ago that there were buys available on the stock market – that there are some good sponsorship deals out there so long as team principals aren't greedy.

"Look," said Jensen in conversation this week, "NASCAR has made the same mistake that CART made back in the 1990s. Back then, it cost $20 million to sponsor a CART team and only $5 million to sponsor a NASCAR team. Some sponsors eventually left open wheel and went over to the other side.

"So the current economic downturn could turn out to be a good thing for Indy car racing. Sponsors who no longer want to spend $20 million in NASCAR, but who want to stay in racing, might look favorably at an investment of $5 (million) or $10 million in open wheel."

Jensen said that for many corporations, increasing an advertising or sponsorship deal during tough economic times is a good decision because there's an opportunity to increase market share. But not all corporations.

"At this particular time, companies whose stock price has been decimated (or who have received bailout money from governments — the F1 sponsor Royal Bank of Scotland, for instance) would be sending the wrong message by spending many millions on sponsorship. Shareholders would question that level of spending. But companies still have to advertise and promote and a lesser investment could be appropriate.

"So while it's not good news for NASCAR, it could be good news for open wheel."

Now, I've known Jensen for years and love his enthusiasm. If ever there was a "glass-half-full" guy, it's him. But while some critics have suggested he tends to be overly optimistic, he's quietly solidified his Formula BMW and Formula Atlantic business and continues to expand.

Although he has not (as of the time of writing) signed on the dotted line to run Canada's entry in the A1 GP World Cup of Motorsport series, it's a done deal and Jensen expects to be at the helm by the time A1 races in China on Nov. 9.

For the uninitiated, the A1 GP series pits nation against nation in a 10-race series conducted mainly in southern hemisphere countries between October and May. The formula racing cars used in the races have been designed by Ferrari and are powered by Ferrari engines.

Unlike the FIA's F1 series, all cars are owned by A1 GP. Mechanics, engineers and drivers from participating countries get the cars on the Wednesday preceding race weekends and prepare and race them. The cars are then returned to the organizers on the Monday morning following the event.

In previous years, Canada's entry was run as a second car by, first, Team Britain and then Team Ireland. Jensen Motorsport will be the first Canadian team to run Canada's entry, which has previously featured drivers Sean McIntosh of Vancouver, James Hinchcliffe of Oakville and Robert Wickens of Toronto.

"It's a good partnership with Ferrari," Jensen said, indicating he thinks the relationship with the legendary marque guarantees the series' profitability. "And the fact that Andretti-Green Racing is running the U.S. entry (with Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick splitting the driving) is even more of an indication of the series' health."

Jensen says his driver for the China race will likely be Alex Tagliani, although he's also had contact with Wickens, Jacques Villeneuve and Andrew Ranger and expects to have one or more of those drivers in the Canadian car at some point.

Domestically, Jensen is offering a carrot to any driver who wins the Formula BMW Americas championship next year while driving for his team. The prize will be a sponsored drive in the 2010 Atlantic championship – which is a surprise, considering that some people have suggested it was on its last legs.

"The Atlantic series should continue to prosper," Jensen said. "Cooper Tires and Mazda are solidly behind the series and are putting money into it. And Atlantics will be part of most American Le Mans Series weekends, so the series and the drivers are guaranteed good exposure."

Never content to sit still, and always looking to the future, Jensen concluded our conversation:

"Oh, and I'm taking a look at Indy Lights, too," he said. "A lot of (Atlantic) teams are looking at Indy Lights." Wheels.ca

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