For more than 20 years, most of the Indy race cars fielded by Roger Penske and his formidable team were painted Day-Glo orange and white and carried the Marlboro logo, a brand made by the team’s primary sponsor, Phillip Morris USA. The cars were one of the most easily recognizable in motorsports, in part because Team Penske drivers won the Indianapolis 500 several times in Marlboro colors.
But Phillip Morris dropped its sponsorship at the beginning of last season, and, like other teams, Penske has needed to piece together sponsorships to keep fielding a full three-car team. Within the last week, Penske has announced three deals that, along with Verizon’s continuing primary sponsorship of Will Power, the up-and-coming Australian driver, could benefit his team enormously.
Team Penske said Monday that Izod, which is also the title sponsor of the IndyCar series, would be the primary sponsor of the car driven by Ryan Briscoe in several races in 2011, including the Indy 500. The car driven by Helio Castroneves at Indy and in other races will be sponsored by Shell, Penske said Friday. Meijer, a retail chain in the Midwest, will be an associate sponsor of all three cars.
Izod had been the sponsor of the Andretti Autosport car driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, another rising star. Tony Kanaan, another longtime driver on the team owned by Michael Andretti, lost 7-Eleven as his sponsor and his ride with Andretti at the end of the season. Meijer had been an associate sponsor for Marco Andretti, Michael’s son.
Sponsorship dollars, which are even more vital to success in auto racing than horsepower, have moved decidedly in Team Penske’s direction. Further, there is the strong possibility that Sam Hornish Jr., the 2006 Indy 500 champion, who has not had much success racing stock cars in the last three years, could race in the 2011 Indy 500 for Penske.
“He’s always had an open invitation to run the Indy 500 with us. Nothing’s changed,” Tim Cindric, the president of Penske Racing, said in a teleconference on Monday.
Referring to Hornish’s status as a Sprint Cup driver, Cindric added, “I think what’s changed is the fact we haven’t been able to secure a full‑time Cup ride for him. And that makes things a bit more obvious. But he’s always had an open invitation with us to run Indy.”
Although the series has been energized by signing on at least three manufacturers for a new car program for the 2012 season, the imbalance in sponsorship dollars could be seen as a step back for parity in the series. The top five in last year’s standings drove either for Chip Ganassi or Penske. (Dario Franchitti, the series champion, drove for Ganassi.)
Danica Patrick finished 10th in the standings last year driving a car for Michael Andretti. Kanaan was sixth, Hunter-Reay was seventh and Marco Andretti was eighth. Mike Kelly, executive vice president of marketing for Izod’s parent company, Phillips-VanHeusen, said his company simply thought sponsoring Penske’s team was a better business opportunity.
“There’s no question he’s a contender out on the track,” Kelly said of Hunter-Reay.
[Source: The New York Times]