It was a good news-bad news weekend on the sponsorship front for the IndyCar Series.
Although Andretti Autosport attracted a new sponsor in order to run Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe in the 2014 season, the series lost its title sponsor, a race sponsor (unexpectedly, it seems) and two high profile team sponsors just this weekend.
And some of the pay-driver chickens are coming home to roost. Because of political changes in his homeland, there’s a question whether Venezuelan pilot E.J. Viso (who missed the last IndyCar race Saturday night in California) will be able to continue his big-league racing career. (F1 driver Pastor Maldonado is in the same boat but that's grist for another column.)
The 2014 IndyCar Series season will either be unsponsored or else sponsored by a corporation other than Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH Corp.) whose IZOD clothing line was front-and-centre in recent years.
Whether the series needs a title sponsor is debatable. Unless the company that buys the rights steps up and promotes the series – really promotes it, as Sprint, Nationwide insurance and Camping World outdoor stores do in NASCAR – it won't do any good.
And IndyCar has not had much good luck in that area. In fact, just about the last solid title sponsor Indy car racing has had was PPG – which was back in the days of CART.
IZOD seemed to start out with good intentions but lost its enthusiasm for the sport, it seemed, as the result of Dan Wheldon being killed at Las Vegas two years ago. Whether there’s a direct correlation or not, there is no doubt that IZOD was largely missing in action during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Meantime, Go Daddy didn’t renew its sponsorship with Andretti that began with Danica Patrick and continued with Hinchcliffe but ended when the checkers flew Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway in California. Although there was no formal announcement of the exit, CEO Blake Irving had indicated TV ratings for the series didn’t justify the millions of dollars required to continue participating.
And at Fontana, mere hours before the announcement of Hinchcliffe’s new sponsor, Davey Hamilton announced that his long-time backer, Hewlett-Packard, would not be back as sponsor of the Schmidt-Hamilton Racing car driven by Simon Pagenaud.
This was a shock, in that HP has been with Hamilton forever and there was no indication that the partnership wouldn’t continue.
Speaking of shocks, Honda’s decision to withdraw as title sponsor of the first race of the 2014 season at St. Petersburg, Fla., came out of the blue. "To say we’re surprised is an understatment," St. Petersburg race president Tim Ramsberger told the Tampa Bay Times.
Ramsberger said he’s confident other sponsors will come forward, words that were echoed by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who was quoted by the Times as saying: "Sponsors come and go. No one’s married to Honda. We’re married to the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg."
Honda did not return calls to the company seeking an explanation, which I suggest might have something to do with single races vis-a-vis doubleheaders. Honda Canada is extremely pleased with the publicity it received from the two-race Honda Indy Toronto weekend held this season and St. Pete was reportedly seeking a double-header weekend to kick off the 2014 season, something that won't be happening.
The good news, so far as Canadian fans of the series are concerned, is that United Fiber & Data, a high-tech company that was founded by three members of the rock band LIVE, will sponsor the No. 27 car driven by Hinchcliffe. UFD will also serve as a major associate sponsor of the cars raced by Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay and will also sponsor Mathew Brabham in the Indy Lights series.
In a release, Hinchcliffe said: "It’s great to be back with Andretti. Obviously this has been home for the last two years and we preach so much about chemistry in this team and to keep it together is awesome.
"I want to, first off, thank GoDaddy for the last two years and the past support that they’ve given to this team. But I’m really excited about UFD and being able to work with those guys. I think we can do a lot together and it’s great to be back working with Michael, Ryan and Marco and everyone on the team."
Wheels correspondent Stephanie Wallcraft was in California for the Saturday night race and was able to get additional comments from Hinchcliffe following the announcement that Andretti would be moving from Chevrolet engines to Honda in 2013.
"Obviously, my rookie year was with Honda (Newman-Haas Racing in 2011), and they’re an incredible competitor. It’s been really hard racing against them the last couple of years. We’ve had a good run with Chevy, and I thank them for everything because they have been a great partner. . . . I still want the Bowtie to win it tonight. And then we’ll start this new relationship with Honda.
"They’re a super motivated company. It’s a company of racers, and they’ve done a lot of work already on the 2014 program, which is very exciting. They have a lot of resources that we can tap into as a team, which is very exciting. It’ll be cool to work with some familiar faces, but I think the program as a whole is so strong that we should be sitting pretty."
It’s one thing for Andretti to say – apparently – goodbye to Viso, who hasn’t done much in six years except pay a lot of money to Jimmy Vasser (KV), Michael Andretti (AA) and Keith Wiggins (HVM). He’s made 86 starts in IndyCar and there is a big, fat, goose egg in his Win column.
But to have let Hinchcliffe go, particularly after the season he’s had – three victories – would have been a public-relations disaster for the team and the series and would have led to questions about the league’s goal of having the best drivers in the world challenging for its championship.
But that’s all in the past now - although everything apparently only came together at the last minute - and good luck to James, Honda and Andretti Autosport going forward.
The long winter ahead will likely be filled with speculation about car counts in 2014 (I suggest there will be fewer than the 24-25 they had this season) and rumours about the future direction of the series which, apparently, will involve a number of international races (other than Canada’s).
So good luck to IndyCar, too. They’re going to need it.
Scott Dixon won the championship and Will Power won the race as the IndyCar season came to an end Saturday night in California. See below for a report on that race as well as the final American Le Mans Series race at Road Atlanta.
At Hockenheim, Germany, on Sunday, Timo Glock won the first German Touring Car (DTM) race of his post-Formula One career, driving for BMW. 2012 champion Bruno Spengler of Quebec finished third while the second Canadian in the series, Robert Wickens of Guelph, was a disappointing 18th (of 22 cars), driving for Mercedes. Mike Rockfeller, in an Audi, wrapped up the championship before this final race of the 2013 season.
Said Wickens afterward: "Today’s race was really tough for me. The speed was definitely there, but my car was damaged in some hard-fought scraps, making it tricky to attack. Then, when I got a time penalty, my race was over.
"But all in all, I’d had a great season. Of course, the win at the Nurburgring was the best moment of the year for me. Finishing in the Top 5 in my second season in such a highly competitive series like the DTM is something that I can be really proud of. I will go on the offensive again next year and, hopefully, be in contention for the title."
Jamie McMurray won a remarkably safe and accident-free NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega, Ala., Sunday afternoon although the event did finish under caution after Austin Dillon lost control on the last lap and was nailed from behind by Casey Mears, knocking Dillon’s No. 14 car usually driven by Tony Stewart 10 feet into the air. Remarkably, they were the only two cars involved.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. third (his best finish so far in Sprint Cup), Paul Menard fourth and Kyle Busch fifth. With four races remaining in the Chase for the Championship, Jimmie Johnson, who was 13th Sunday, now leads Matt Kenseth (20th) by four points. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are tied for third and are 26 points behind the leader. Jeff Gordon is next, 36 points back.
The race, other than the last lap, was largely uneventful. Danica Patrick ran in the Top Ten most of the day and looked to be in a position to win until she went into the pits for her final stop way over her head and had to serve a speeding penalty.
And that, as they say, is all she wrote.
Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing won the IZOD IndyCar Series championship Saturday night and Neel Jani, Nico Prost and Nick Heidfeld won the last-ever American Le Mans Series race at Road America as the 2013 big-league auto racing season starts to wind down.
Only Formula One and NASCAR Sprint Cup have races remaining.
At Auto Club Speedway in California, about 20 people watched Will Power win the IndyCar Series race and Dixon the title. Only five cars were on the lead lap at the checkers and only nine were still running.
When I say about 20 people watched, that is not a typo. It is not 200, or 2,000 or 20,000. It is 20. And yes, that is an exaggeration but there really was nobody there and it will be interesting to see how many people watched on television.
It reminds me of a crack my old pal Gary Morton was want to say whenever we would travel to an old Indy Racing League race together at Phoenix or Homestead-Miami or wherever that was sure to draw flies.
Me: So where do you think we should sit, Gary?
Morton: Anywhere we want.
In any event, it was an exciting race in that you wondered if anybody was going to be running at the finish. Engines would let go or cars would crash and of the 24 that started, only about a quarter were really still going at the end.
As a result, Dixon finished with 377 points to Castroneves' 350. Simon Pagenaud finished third in the scoring (he wasn't a factor in Saturday night's race and perhaps that's because he heard the depressing news earlier in the day that primary sponsor Hewlett-Packard won't be back next year) and Will Power was fourth, with Marco Andretti fifth, Justin Wilson sixth, 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay seventh, James Hinchcliffe eighth (he was fourth Saturday night, his sixth top five finish of 2013), Charlie Kimball ninth and the injured Dario Franchitti tenth.
In the race itself, Ed Carpenter was second behind Power - Carpenter won this race a year ago - and Tony Kanaan was third.
There were several crashes during the 500-mile race, the most serious involving Wilson who collected Oriol Servia, Josef Newgarden, Tristan Vautier (filling in for E.J. Viso, who came down with the empty wallet flu), Simona de Silvestro and James Jakes. Wilson was taken to hospital; the others escaped injury.
Sebastien Bourdais, A.J. Allmendinger and Alex Tagliani (filling in for Franchitti) ran into SAFER barriers all by themselves.
Dixon's championship is his third in the series. He won the title in 2003 and 2008 and now has 33 victories to his credit in 220 starts. Two of his four wins this season came at the Honda Indy Toronto, where he swept the double-header.
Meanwhile, at Road Atlanta, Jani, Prost and Heidfeld drove the No. 12 Rebellion Timepieces/Lemo Connectors/Speedy Garage Toyota-powered Lola B12/60 to victory in the 16th Petit Le Mans.
Jani was six laps ahead of second-place finisher Ryan Briscoe, who won the P2 class. Canadian Kyle Marcelli of Barrie won the Prototype Challenge class, sharing the honours with co-drivers Stefan Johansson and Chris Cumming.
Bryan Sellers, Nick Tandy and Wolf Henzler won the GT Class in a Porsche 911, while Nelson Canache Jr., Spencer Pumpelly and Madison Snow were first in GT Challenge, also in a Porsche 911.
It is hoped that the new United SportsCar Series will result in closer racing. Yes, sports car endurance racing is a different kettle of fish as compared to sprints like a Formula One Grand Prix or a 500-mile IndyCar race, but - for instance - the winning P1 car was 20 laps (yes, that's correct: t-w-e-n-t-y laps) ahead of the second-place car in its class, which was driven by Tony Burgess of Toronto with Chris Dyson and Chris McMurray co-driving and which finished 11th overall.
The championship winning Muscle Milk-sponsored P1 team led by Greg Pickett with Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf driving dropped out of the event with overheating issues five hours into it.
Luhr ended his ALMS career with a series-leading 49 victories. Going into the finale, the team had won eight straight races (including the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park round in July) and Luhr and Graf had clinched the driver, team and manufacturer (Honda) titles.
As well as winning the P1 championship in the ALMS, Honda had more good news to announce out in California. It has entered into a multi-year deal with Andretti Autosport to provide race engines and other technical support.
And Canadian James Hinchcliffe of Oakville will return for another year in the No. 27 car but instead of primary sponsor GoDaddy, the car will be sponsored by the United Fiber & Data Corp. (UFD), a high-tech company.
Eric Desy, 45, of Montreal, a student at a high performance motorycle racing school at Daytona International Speedway, was killed Thursday when he collided with instructor Rick Shaw, 65, who also died in the crash.
Desy was a well-known amateur racer and Shaw was a professional who at one time held the record for the most miles raced in the annual Daytona 200.
At the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, the final race ever of the American le Mans Series, Klaus Graf is leading overall and is No. 1 in P1, Peter Dumbrek is leading in P2, Oswaldo Negri is first in PC, Robin Liddell is in front in GT and Sebastiaan Bleekemolen leads in GTC. This was the case at 3 p.m. There are six hours remaining and you can follow timing and scoring at alms.com or watch it happen on the Speed Channel. Or both.
At Hockenheim, Germany, Canadian Bruno Spengler won the pole in a BMW for the final race of the 2013 German Touring Car Championship (DTM) season. The other Canadian in the series, Robert Wickens of Guelph, was the fastest Mercedes driver but could only qualify 13th. Said Wickens:
"The DTM is a tough series. Unfortunately, I made a small error in Q2 and you need a perfect lap in the DTM in order to progress to the second session of the qualifying. I didn't manage it, but anything can happen in tomorrow's race."
Audi driver Mike Rockenfeller has already won the series title.
Rain washed out qualifying today for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega, Ala. Aric Almirola will start on pole. The lineup was determined by speeds set during the first practice session.
Will Power will start on pole for tonight’s final IZOD IndyCar Series race at Auto Club Speedway in California (Sportsnet 1 at 8 p.m.).
- NORRIS McDONALD