Saying Goodbye To A Good Friend Of IndyCar

Have you ever had an acquaintance develop a terminal illness? I’m not talking about a close friend or a family member, but someone you know well enough to speak to at the grocery store. OK, maybe this is a slightly morbid comparison. I would never make this type of comparison for a loved one, just for a casual acquaintance – so bear with me. You hear the diagnosis and you know the inevitable outcome. Yet, when it happens – it’s still somewhat of a punch to the gut.

On a smaller scale, that’s what it was like a couple of weeks ago when it was confirmed that Verizon will no longer be the title sponsor for the IndyCar Series once their contract is up at the end of the 2018 season. It’s another case of the dreaded new CEO that does not see the value of motorsports sponsorships.

Unlike when IZOD bailed out of their title sponsorship agreement for the same reason, I’m not angry at Verizon. There are a couple of stark differences here between the exits of IZOD and Verizon. While both title sponsorships were victims of the dreaded new CEO, Verizon is staying involved with the series. The other difference? They aren’t bailing out a year early.

IZOD hit the ground running shortly after it was announced they would become the title sponsor in November of 2009. They made a couple of commercials with a couple of IndyCar drivers mingling in the desert with a bunch of metrosexuals. They unveiled some not-so-good looking T-shirts and promised to do a complete makeover of the IndyCar apparel available in the gift-shops. IZOD also made a big splash at Long Beach with some parties in Hollywood meant to resemble Hollywood premieres. From what I heard, it was impressive.

But after making such a big splash, the momentum from IZOD quickly toned down. The big splash dried up. By the second year of the sponsorship, the pullback was very noticeable from all fans. The bad commercials were gone and so was much of the IZOD activation and even signage. As interest from IZOD continued to dwindle, the rumors grew. By May of 2013, it was obvious that IZOD would not be around by the time their five-year commitment ran out Shortly after the 2013 season finale at Fontana, which took place in late October by the way – IZOD confirmed what we already knew. They were bailing out of their agreement one year early and would not be back when the 2014 season started just a few months later.

I have ripped on IndyCar CEO Mark Miles on several issues over the years. Some were justified, but some probably weren’t. But I also give praise when it’s due and Miles deserves a ton of credit for convincing a major company like Verizon to commit to a new five-year deal as the new title sponsor in a matter of months, in time for the start of the 2014 season.

Even the most optimistic fans expected the series to go unsponsored for 2014. Most of us considered it a tough sell to land a company by 2015. But within a matter of months, Verizon was on board. They had already been a sponsor for Team Penske beginning in 2009. It started out as a part-time sponsor ship for part-time driver Will Power. But Roger Penske grew and nurtured the sponsorship over the years. While they would continue to be a major part of Team Penske, they expanded to be the full-time title sponsor for the newly renamed Verizon IndyCar Series in 2014.

Between the messy exit of IZOD and the announcement of Verizon, not a single race was run without a title sponsor. For that, Miles and Verizon both earned my respect – for whatever that’s worth.

Verizon did a great job developing and updating the IndyCar mobile app and strengthening cell signals at every track. They provided data transmission and communications for all of the teams and have been an excellent partner. Like with IZOD, you could tell that some of the Verizon activation was dropping off at tracks but it was not near as noticeable or dramatic as when IZOD lost interest.

When it was announced that they would be leaving at the end of next year, it was not unexpected but the news was still sad to hear once it was confirmed. But there is a lot of good news wrapped up in their ultimate departure. First of all, they have given Mark Miles a lot more notice to go out and find a replacement. While Miles had only a few months to replace IZOD, the start of the 2019 IndyCar season is about eighteen months from when Verizon gave notice. That will help.

Another bit of good news is the fact that Verizon will continue to stay on as a sponsor with Team Penske. IZOD took all of their sponsorship with them when they took their title sponsorship away. I’ve also heard unofficially that Verizon will continue as a communications partner to the series at some level.

The days of decades-long motorsports partnerships are over. Winston and RJ Reynolds had about a thirty-five year run as NASCAR’s title sponsor, but they were a casualty of the Tobacco Legislation in the early 2000’s. After that long run, they were sponsored by NEXTEL, and then Sprint after Sprint took over NEXTEL. That lasted until last season. After last season, NASCAR announced that Sprint would be replaced by Monster Energy Drink. Supposedly, the Monster deal is a fraction of what Sprint was paying.

CART had about a fifteen year run with PPG as the title sponsor of the PPG IndyCar World Series. In the mid-nineties, they were replaced by FedEx about the same time as when the CART/IRL split was at its nastiest. At that time, CART was still the premier series by far. But in my opinion, FedEx dropped the ball. They did nothing to capitalize on the platform that CART gave them. They wrote a check to the series and did absolutely nothing else. It’s no wonder they saw no return on their investment and were out after a handful of seasons.

Don’t even get me started on the IRL’s failed sponsorships with Pep Boys and then search engine Northern Lights. Their five-year deal as the Indy Racing Northern Light Series lasted only two seasons, 2000-2001. The fifty million dollar deal was on paper only. To be honest – it was a joke. By the 2002, it was back to the IRL and in 2003, the series adopted the name IndyCar Series to differentiate it from the newly formed Infiniti Pro Series, which eventually became Indy Lights.

Both series have had tough times keeping title sponsors. After CART went bankrupt and they emerged as the Champ Car Series, the official name was the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford. That was a mouthful. No wonder everyone just called them Champ Car.

The IndyCar Series went unsponsored from 2002 until 2010; being kept afloat by the Hulman-George checkbook. When Tony George’s sisters ousted him as the CEO, acting CEO and Board Chairman Jeff Belskus was charged with finding a title sponsor and a permanent CEO. First he found IZOD and then Randy Bernard a few months later. Bernard lasted to the end of the 2012 season and IZOD was gone a year later.

Recapping those turbulent years make these days seem very stable in the IndyCar world. Miles has tabbed Jay Frye and CJ O’Donnell for key leadership positions. Between the three of them, I feel very confident that a solid partner will be in place as title sponsor for the beginning of the 2019 IndyCar season.

In the meantime, I’d like to express how grateful I am to Verizon. Unlike IZOD, they are leaving the series on very good terms and they will leave the series in much better shape from when they assumed the title sponsorship.

So as we go through this offseason and into the 2018 IndyCar season; let’s not trash Verizon for leaving the series. They did well by the series and they have done a lot for IndyCar. Plus, it doesn’t help to convince a new title sponsor to come on board if the outgoing sponsor is being ripped on TrackForum and all of the message boards.

They will have fulfilled their obligation and given us five years. It’s now time for them to move on and someone else will come in for about five years. In this day and age, it’s all you can hope for – and it’s more than IZOD gave us.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “Saying Goodbye To A Good Friend Of IndyCar”

  1. Thanks for the write-up about the series’ title sponsor leaving. I agree that Verizon has done a good job. I guess many IndyCar fans will miss their app. Personally, I’ve never seen it, but how could I, living in Europe and never having been trackside at an IndyCar event so far.

    However, George, with your life expectancy for the next title sponsor of 5 years, don’t you think the comparison with a terminal illness is a bit strong? The mother of one of my friends is sadly suffering from one at the time. And it’s probably for the better that he didn’t read your article, otherwise it would have upset him.
    Also, my ex-girlfriend used to have guinea pigs. 5 years was about the time span of their life expectancy.
    I guess there was only one series title sponsor in this sport for which the comparison you made would make sense and that is PPG.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    While I understand the argument that Verizon could have done more, I thought the effort and money they gave Indycar was at least comparable to, if not a tick more than, what the series was actually worth to a sponsor. No complaints, and I wish they were staying on board. I think they will be tough to replace. If they remain in a role similar to the one they played before their title sponsorship, that would be good.

    The genesis of the Verizon sponsorship is interesting, I think. We all know that it was Roger Penske that brought them to Indycar, but that was actually a result of a NASCAR sponsorship that Verizon inherited when the purchased Alltel in 2008. It was after dissolving the Alltel brand, which had only been allowed to sponsor a car in NASCAR’s Nextel/Sprint Cup series via grandfather clause, that Verizon moved into Indycar (and also the NASCAR Nationwide series, initially). Of course, Penske’s relationship with Alltel began with Ryan Newman in ARCA back in 2000. Yes, Ryan Newman played a not-insignificant role in Indycar ultimately securing a multi-million dollar title sponsorship.

    I will also defend FedEx’s CART sponsorship to some extent. They did do more than simply write a check, and I can think of three examples off of the top of my head.
    – They collaborated with Honda on that excellent TV commercial where Gil de Ferran is a FedEx delivery option. This was very cool.
    – The FedEx jet that they parked on the tarmac at Burke Lakefront Airport, looming over the Cleveland Grand Prix. This was also very cool.
    – Providing the logistics and transportation for CART’s overseas races. This is less cool than the previous two but had a much bigger impact. It is not a coincidence that CART’s international schedule expanded during FedEx’s 5 year sponsorship.

    • Hi Billy. Thanks for adding this additional information. I retired from FedEx in 2013. FedEx appreciates the need for speed. On a December day in 2013 at the peak of their holiday shpping season, they processed 350,000+ packages in 24 hours at their highly automated Wisconsin facility near here. I was part of that and began thinking about retirement not too long thereafter.

      • I drove/delivered for FedEx Ground in 2014-15 when taking a break from my teaching career. I gained a whole new appreciation for that line of work. I was only 40 then, and after many of those 55-60 hour work weeks, I felt like retiring! Heading back to the classroom suddenly didn’t sound so bad!

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