- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Even before Danica Patrick made history by winning the Japan 300 over the weekend, the Indy Racing League was having a pretty good year. Sponsorships were up, fan interest was up and there was a general buzz around open-wheel racing.

First, of course, the IRL announced in February the merger with its rival series, Champ Car, thus unifying American open-wheel racing for the first time in 30 years.

That agreement paid immediate dividends, eliminating the biggest obstacle many sponsors had to partnering with IRL. And any fear the Champ Car drivers couldn’t cut it in the IRL were squashed when 19-year-old Graham Rahal won the circuit’s second race at St. Petersburg.

“[The merger] really moved that final objection that some people had,” said Terry Angstadt, president of IRL’s commercial division. “We can now sort of call their bluff and [say], ‘This is what you told us.’ ”

Earlier this month, IRL struck a deal with Firestone to be the title sponsor of the developmental Indy Lights Series, formerly known as the Indy Pro Series. Previously, IRL had announced Coca-Cola as its official soft drink and DirecTV as its official high-definition television provider and unveiled a partnership with Peak Motor Oil.

But according to Angstadt, some of the most recent sponsors may not have come on board were it not for an aggressive offseason push that included the hiring of an outside marketing agency and two sales executives.

“We had tons of proposals out there, tons of face-to-face meetings,” Angstadt said.

Patrick’s win gives IRL the opportunity to turn more of those meetings into cash: The league likely has a solid month of good buzz leading into the Indianapolis 500, its most prestigious race.

“It’s definitely been publicized, and people are finding out about it, and in turn people are just finding out about IndyCar more,” Patrick said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “And so I think that there’s a chain reaction, and a lot of people are affected. And it’s not just about me. It’s about finding out about the league, too.”

Long term, IRL officials believe they can grow the league’s revenues by at least 5 percent each year, and Angstadt said a 20 percent annual growth rate is feasible. At the top of IRL’s list is landing a title sponsor for its main IndyCar Series.

“We really feel we have the opportunity to make this a high-growth company,” he said.

But analysts said IRL must be careful to ensure there are story lines other than Patrick’s groundbreaking win.

“Everyone has to be careful,” said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “It’s one race, and it’s certainly important that she won. But if she turns into a one-hit wonder, people will think that maybe everyone attached to motorsports is placing too much emphasis on this. They needed a story. They needed a hook. What they can’t afford is something that’s not substantial.”

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