- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Indy Racing League starts its 2009 season Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla., amid a flurry of questions about the economy and the status of one of its most high-profile drivers. But there is also optimism about the nation’s top open-wheel racing series as it begins it second season as a fully unified body.

This time last year, IRL racing teams scrambled to put together programs for former Champ Car drivers after a last-second merger that ended a long-standing rift between the two racing bodies. With that drama out of the way, teams are now starting a season in the teeth of a recession that has forced everyone to work harder.

“It’s tougher, there’s no question about it,” said Terry Angstadt, president of IRL’s commercial division. “You have to make more calls, you have to travel more you have to just hit the process harder than you ever have before.”

But IRL and its top-tier IndyCar Series could be in a unique position to capitalize on the economic downturn. Unlike NASCAR, the league isn’t dependent on the health of the American auto sector; all cars use Honda engines inside Dallara chassis. And the cost to support a winning car - about $8 million - is less than half that of Sprint Cup cars. IRL officials said they have positioned themselves as a lower-cost alternative for sponsors looking to break into the auto racing sector.

“Because of where we are positioned, we think we have a great return on investment,” Angstadt said. “We know you can get involved in our sport for less, so when you are kind of the value league out there the impact is less. We just have to play to our strength, which is value.”

The IRL said its sponsorship revenue will increase as a result of new deals, including those with clothing manufacturer Izod and Apex Brasil, the top trade promotion agency in Brazil. Izod is expected to activate heavily with an IRL licensed apparel line in Macy’s stores and advertising on billboards and in movie theaters.

“We’re getting lots of good reception from potential sponsors, and we have every reason to believe we’re going to get where we need to be,” Angstadt said.

One problem for the IRL is the legal situation of Helio Castroneves, arguably the series’ most charismatic and popular driver. Castroneves is a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who also won the popular ABC dancing competition “Dancing With the Stars” but is now on trial for tax evasion. Federal prosecutors claim he owes more than $2.3 million. Members of Castroneves’ Penske team said he will drive if he is absolved of any wrongdoing but in the meantime have provided a ride to promising Australian driver Will Power.

Angstadt said Castroneves’ presence will be missed, but he doesn’t think potential sponsors have held off partnering with the series as a result of the controversy.

“I don’t think anyone we’ve talked to are sitting on the sidelines or waiting and seeing,” Angstadt said. “We sure wish Helio the best. He’s a big part of our business. Will it hurt if that decision doesn’t go his way? There’s no question it will, but at the same time that is something we don’t control and we’ll just focus on great opportunities for Will if that happens to be the development.”

In the meantime, IRL officials said they are pleased with the early performance of its new main broadcast partner Versus, which has already produced some IndyCar-related programming beyond what open-wheel racing fans are accustomed to.

Despite some bumps in the road, IRL officials expect to have a strong financial year as they work to regain a premier place in the consciousness of sports fans.

“We have already seen growth,” Angstadt said. “Year over year, we are already ahead of last year. So we are in a fortune position right now. We think we have an opportunity to significantly grow this year.”

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