Sponsors flee IndyCar Fontana was a good news-bad news weekend on the sponsorship front for the IndyCar Series.
Although Andretti Autosport attracted a new sponsor in order to run Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe in the 2014 season, the series lost its title sponsor, a race sponsor (unexpectedly, it seems) and two high profile team sponsors just this weekend. (See related rumor)
And some of the pay-driver chickens are coming home to roost. Because of political changes in his homeland, there’s a question whether Venezuelan pilot E.J. Viso (who missed the last IndyCar race Saturday night in California) will be able to continue his big-league racing career. (F1 driver Pastor Maldonado is in the same boat but that's grist for another column.)
The 2014 IndyCar Series season will either be unsponsored or else sponsored by a corporation other than Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH Corp.) whose IZOD clothing line was front-and-centre in recent years.
Whether the series needs a title sponsor is debatable. Unless the company that buys the rights steps up and promotes the series – really promotes it, as Sprint, Nationwide insurance and Camping World outdoor stores do in NASCAR – it won't do any good.
And IndyCar has not had much good luck in that area. In fact, just about the last solid title sponsor Indy car racing has had was PPG – which was back in the days of CART (Editor's Note: And Tony George destroyed CART, and with it the sport).
IZOD seemed to start out with good intentions but lost its enthusiasm for the sport, it seemed, as the result of Dan Wheldon being killed at Las Vegas two years ago. Whether there’s a direct correlation or not, there is no doubt that IZOD was largely missing in action during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Meantime, Go Daddy didn’t renew its sponsorship with Andretti that began with Danica Patrick and continued with Hinchcliffe but ended when the checkers flew Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway in California. Although there was no formal announcement of the exit, CEO Blake Irving had indicated TV ratings for the series didn’t justify the millions of dollars required to continue participating. And at Fontana, mere hours before the announcement of Hinchcliffe’s new sponsor, Davey Hamilton announced that his long-time backer, Hewlett-Packard, would not be back as sponsor of the Schmidt-Hamilton Racing car driven by Simon Pagenaud.
This was a shock, in that HP has been with Hamilton forever and there was no indication that the partnership wouldn’t continue.
Speaking of shocks, Honda’s decision to withdraw as title sponsor of the first race of the 2014 season at St. Petersburg, Fla., came out of the blue. "To say we’re surprised is an understatement," St. Petersburg race president Tim Ramsberger told the Tampa Bay Times.
Ramsberger said he’s confident other sponsors will come forward, words that were echoed by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who was quoted by the Times as saying: "Sponsors come and go. No one’s married to Honda. We’re married to the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg."
Honda did not return calls to the company seeking an explanation, which I suggest might have something to do with single races vis-a-vis doubleheaders. Honda Canada is extremely pleased with the publicity it received from the two-race Honda Indy Toronto weekend held this season and St. Pete was reportedly seeking a double-header weekend to kick off the 2014 season, something that won't be happening.
The good news, so far as Canadian fans of the series are concerned, is that United Fiber & Data, a high-tech company that was founded by three members of the rock band LIVE, will sponsor the No. 27 car driven by Hinchcliffe. UFD will also serve as a major associate sponsor of the cars raced by Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay and will also sponsor Mathew Brabham in the Indy Lights series.
In a release, Hinchcliffe said: "It’s great to be back with Andretti. Obviously this has been home for the last two years and we preach so much about chemistry in this team and to keep it together is awesome.
"I want to, first off, thank GoDaddy for the last two years and the past support that they’ve given to this team. But I’m really excited about UFD and being able to work with those guys. I think we can do a lot together and it’s great to be back working with Michael, Ryan and Marco and everyone on the team."
Wheels correspondent Stephanie Wallcraft was in California for the Saturday night race and was able to get additional comments from Hinchcliffe following the announcement that Andretti would be moving from Chevrolet engines to Honda in 2013.
"Obviously, my rookie year was with Honda (Newman-Haas Racing in 2011), and they’re an incredible competitor. It’s been really hard racing against them the last couple of years. We’ve had a good run with Chevy, and I thank them for everything because they have been a great partner. . . . I still want the Bowtie to win it tonight. And then we’ll start this new relationship with Honda.
"They’re a super motivated company. It’s a company of racers, and they’ve done a lot of work already on the 2014 program, which is very exciting. They have a lot of resources that we can tap into as a team, which is very exciting. It’ll be cool to work with some familiar faces, but I think the program as a whole is so strong that we should be sitting pretty."
It’s one thing for Andretti to say – apparently – goodbye to Viso, who hasn’t done much in six years except pay a lot of money to Jimmy Vasser (KV), Michael Andretti (AA) and Keith Wiggins (HVM). He’s made 86 starts in IndyCar and there is a big, fat, goose egg in his Win column.
But to have let Hinchcliffe go, particularly after the season he’s had – three victories – would have been a public-relations disaster for the team and the series and would have led to questions about the league’s goal of having the best drivers in the world challenging for its championship.
But that’s all in the past now - although everything apparently only came together at the last minute - and good luck to James, Honda and Andretti Autosport going forward.
The long winter ahead will likely be filled with speculation about car counts in 2014 (I suggest there will be fewer than the 24-25 they had this season) and rumors about the future direction of the series which, apparently, will involve a number of international races (other than Canada’s).
So good luck to IndyCar, too. They’re going to need it. Toronto Star Norris McDonald's Auto Racing Blog