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Krupa: Increased Sponsorships Rev Detroit Grand Prix

The Detroit News, June 04, 2016

By Gregg Krupa

Driver Graham Rahal sat at the dais of the IndyCar Series media center in the 1908-vintage Belle Isle Casino talking about racing and announcing his latest sponsor.

The topics go hand-in-hand in motorsports.

From his mid-torso up and along both arms on his fireproof racing suit, Rahal displayed 24 logos from sponsors. They make his wheels go around.

The companies would not finance much of the racing associated with the Belle Isle Grand Prix and bring their signage, hospitality centers, premium seating for customers, charity events like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, logo-emblazoned knick-knacks and free sun screen, if not for television and the spectators in the stands.

“The crowd looks great,” Rahal said, his smile beaming. “There are so many activities for people on the infield. It’s just awesome.”

“I mean, they do a great job,” he said, of Roger Penske’s team of organizers.

“I just hope the weather stays nice, so they can see the fruits of their labors, a little bit.”

There you have it, an introductory level class that could be called Financing of Motorsports 101.

In testing the success of Grand Prix weekend, now in its fifth year on Belle Isle after a couple interruptions the past 15 years, one can consider television ratings and a look at the fans in the stands, compare them to the empty seats and make a judgement.

Event has 14 new sponsors

But the big bucks come from the sponsors.

Sponsorship of motorsports, led by Formula One and NASCAR, will total $5.8 billion across the globe this year. It is an increase from $4.97 billion in 2012, when IndyCar returned to Belle Isle, according to the IEG Sponsorship Report.

While IndyCar is a bit player in the sweepstakes compared to Formula One and NASCAR, things are looking up in Detroit.

According to spokesmen, 14 new sponsors is nearly a 25 percent increase since 2015, bringing the total to 74.

In addition, 11 old sponsors increased their support.

Chevrolet is the title sponsor. Quicken Loans is the presenting sponsor. Meijer brought its fan zone. MotorCity Casino Hotel set up an entertainment stage.

The track signage, on display constantly during television broadcasts, includes Continental Tire, Coca-Cola, Firestone, Pure Michigan, MGM Grand Detroit and Autotrader.

“We simply couldn’t host this great event annually without them,” said Bud Denker, race chairman.

“They want to support a very positive event for the area and they also see great business to business opportunities at the Grand Prix. Thanks to the support of our partners, the event is also able to help make significant and lasting improvements to Belle Isle each year so visitors can enjoy the park year round.”

Penske loves racing, and his 50-year career demonstrates that he likely would be happy to do it just about anywhere. But the marketing of Detroit during the Super Bowl in 2006 is what motivated him to try to re-establish the IndyCar Series in the Motor City, he said.

Five years into it, the entrepreneur says he thinks so far, so good.

“I’m thrilled with the event,” Penske said, pointing especially to financing improvements to Belle Isle.

“The competitors like it and we have a tremendous amount of corporate support. You wouldn’t believe the corporate support we have in an event like this.

“It’s downtown, it’s in Detroit, you can get here, there’s good transportation in and out. We’ve learned a lot about bringing in people with the buses over the weekend. We’ve handled adversity with the rain.”

After the monsoon-like rains of last year, Penske said the attendance this year will be a truer test. But he declined to provide numbers.

“I think we’ll have a good crowd, a great crowd, in fact,” he said.

“We’re the only city in IndyCar that has two events. So, I think it’s pretty special.”

From the track to the showroom

Meanwhile, in addition to garnering marketing exposure, Chevrolet, Honda and some automobile industry suppliers are testing their goods, eyeing exchanges of technology from the track to the street.

“For us, we get to feature our power trains and our cars, and that’s what we’re in business to do,” said Jim Campbell, vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports for GM.

“In addition to loving racing, the reason we do it is what we call tech transfer in the industry. It’s an easy thing to say, but it takes a lot of work and effort to really transfer learning from the track to the showroom.

“We do that every day.”

IndyCar lags behind NASCAR in the United States and Formula One across the globe. Television ratings for the Indy 500 declined from a 4.4 to 3.8 this year, while attendance exceeded 350,000 for the first time.

The racing series could use a compelling story. Some hope that Alexander Rossi, the 24-year-old surprise winner of the Indianapolis 500, might help drive a narrative. But Rossi qualified 17th on Friday for today’s race, and is known to prefer the advanced performance of the Formula One cars.

The dual races in the Belle Isle Grand Prix certainly will not draw a television audience to compete with NASCAR. Rain on Sunday would doubtlessly tamp down the live audience.

But after the IndyCar Series pulled out of Milwaukee this season and an attempt to establish a venue on the waterfront in Boston ended in public recriminations and a lawsuit, a venue in the Motor City for two races is of enormous value to promoters — even with some drivers complaining the track surface is bumpier, this year.

Apparently, some sponsors agree.