The month of May was barely over before milk drenched Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson was back behind the wheel at last weekend’s Detroit Grand Prix. The IndyCar Series is a relentless spectacle with the third round of its triple-header taking place this weekend at Road America.
The global appeal of the series may centre on its Indianapolis jewel, but for its core fanbase around the world, it offers a thrill a minute. Our work experience colleague this week has been none other than Joshua, son of our MD Chris Hughes, who himself is no stranger to international motorsport.
In addition to following F1 and F2 fervently, 17-year-old Joshua has also become an IndyCar fan, underscoring the series’ popularity far beyond the US. Joshua has now taken over our blog to explore why the sport retains its appeal for brands looking to get in the fast lane.
IndyCar has been having a resurgence in recent years as it strives to recover from the lows of 2020 amidst the global pandemic. 2020 saw the lowest TV viewing figures ever for the Indianapolis 500 as it was pushed back to August in the wake of the crisis. So, heading into this weekend’s Grand Prix at Road America, with the 106th running of the Indy 500 being held two weeks ago, has IndyCar regained enough of its popularity to maintain its attraction as a sponsorship platform, both in the United States and internationally?
The Indianapolis 500 is one of the ‘jewels in the crown’ of motorsport and – alongside the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix – represents a third of the so-called Triple Crown of motorsport. It makes sense therefore that it is the most watched event of the entire IndyCar season, and the ‘Month of May’ plays host to the practice sessions and build-up preceding this legendary event. It goes without saying that it is the perfect opportunity for sponsors to show their brand to a large audience – this year’s Indy 500 rebounded to a viewing figure of 4.8 million on NBC alone.
Furthermore, the global appeal of IndyCar has increased in recent years due to high profile moves to the sport from major motorsport categories world-wide. Most notably, Romain Grosjean, who made the switch from F1 in 2021 after his five-year stint with Haas. Alongside him were NASCAR great Jimmie Johnson and three-time Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin. These three drivers drew in fans from a variety of backgrounds. Grosjean’s move drew F1 fans to IndyCar, Johnson brought across NASCAR fans and McLaughlin created interest for the sport in Australia and New Zealand.
This increased interest in IndyCar has continued into 2022, as the first three races of this season had an average viewership of 1.1 million on NBC. New arrivals such as Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard from Formula 2 show the increase in appeal of IndyCar to drivers, as well as fans, due to the competitive nature of the series. Other additions to the grid include Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood and another Formula 2 graduate in Tatiana Calderon, whose move from Super Formula continues the legacy of females in Indycar such as Danica Patrick, further widening IndyCar’s appeal in a modern society.
This legacy will be demonstrated further this weekend as Paretta Autosport will race for the first time in 2022, after running in last year’s Indy 500 and becoming the first ever female-owned, female-driven IndyCar team in history. They continue that going into Road America after securing a technical partnership with Ed Carpenter Racing. Paretta Autosport – and in turn IndyCar – are continuing to pave the way for women in motorsport and this will only increase Indycar’s appeal in the future.
There is no better example of this increasing appeal than the Arrow McLaren SP outfit. Originally, called Smidt Peterson after its founders, McLaren sponsored the team at the start of the 2020 season after its less than successful attempt at the Indy 500 with Fernando Alonso in 2019. McLaren then, at the end of the 2021 season, brought a 75% stake in the team and Zak Brown was appointed as Chairman. The team will field three cars in 2022 and is key to McLaren’s expansion outside of Formula 1, alongside its Extreme E team and Formula E teams from next year. Despite other opportunities such as the WEC Hypercar program, McLaren decided IndyCar was worth its investment; a prime example of how IndyCar is attractive to brands due to its recent development and its current development trajectory.
One way in which it is developing is through the tyres and how Firestone, sole tyre supplier of IndyCar, introduced new tyres made from sustainable rubber during the Pit Stop Challenge at this year’s Indy 500. The tyres use a rubber derived from the desert shrub guayule and will make their debut as the Alternate tyre at the Music City Grand Prix this year. In addition, all Firestone tyres are delivered to each grand prix using EV trucks to cut down on their carbon footprint in transport as Bridgestone aims to half its carbon emissions by 2030. Furthermore, Indycar will introduce more sustainable Hybrid power units in 2024 alongside 2.4L V6 twin-turbos. This will be partnered with carbon neutral oils, which are already used, as well as 100% sustainable fuel from 2023 onwards, the first American motorsport to do so, demonstrating how IndyCar is leading the way in sustainability in American motorsport.
As well as sustainability, sponsorship plays an important role in IndyCar as a championship with every race having a title sponsor used in all branding for the event. Furthermore, every team is mandated to run a different livery on each of its cars; this often leads to different sponsors being present on every car, creating lots more opportunities for companies to title sponsor a car or driver. In addition, the title sponsor becomes synonymous with the car, whether it be the commentators, the engineers or the drivers, the sponsor gets mentioned any time the car does. This creates brand association with the car when it does well (and conversely, when it does badly). Also, the addition of the aeroscreen in 2020 further improved the ability to put sponsorship on the cars, with it providing sponsorship placements directly in front of the onboard T-Cam.
Also, the fact that Indycar has advertisement breaks in its coverage helps to show brands to its large viewership figures and nowhere is this more apparent than at the Indy 500. During the 500, this is taken to a whole new level, with special liveries, sponsored camera angles and extra cars for each team, providing extra real estate for companies to promote their brand to the viewers. Furthermore, the winner gets their car put in pride of place as they celebrate in their branded overalls. These images are seen by people across America, and the world, and they start to associate the brand with the Indy 500 champion.
When you combine the improving image of IndyCar internationally with the attitude of the sport towards sponsors on the car you get a powerhouse for promotion and marketing. How does it compare to other motorsports? F1 has title partners for its events but these remain throughout the season, IndyCar promote different partners race by race giving different companies the title sponsorship of every event. Teams in F1 are required to run the same livery on every car, thus meaning select sponsors get more promotion than others, admittedly on a more sustained basis. Brands should still see IndyCar as an attractive sponsorship platform as it continues to gain popularity amongst sports fans in America and across the globe. Indycar’s improving image internationally and sponsorship coverage sets it apart from other sports making it a unique opportunity for businesses.