IRL, Indy Car Series: A Case of the Domino Theory?

Tony CastaneiraAnalyst IFebruary 3, 2009

Last week, in a series of four announcements over a span of less than 72 hours, relating to the Indy Car Series, reminded me of the Domino Theory.                

For those too young to remember, the Domino Theory was a theory that speculated that if one land in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect. In this instance, the Domino Theory relates to the spat of losses suffered by the IRL’s Indy Car Series. In a series that started the last season with high hopes after the grand re-unification announcement but then slowly lost steam throughout the season, this is not good news.

The first domino to fall was the announcement that Rahal-Letterman racing was not planning on fielding a car this year unless a last-minute sponsor was found.

"Everybody knows about what's going on in this economy, and things look pretty grim," team co-owner Bobby Rahal said Thursday. "But we do have some sponsorship on board and what we're still looking for is a primary sponsor. That obviously isn't going to be easy to find in this environment. But we're not about to give up. We're going to keep searching for sponsorship to run the 2009 season and to run the Indianapolis 500."

Rahal-Letterman Racing was sponsored last year by an American ethanol company, but the company, which also supplied fuel for the series, left the series after the 2008 season. Recently, the Indy Car Series announced an agreement with Brazilian-based Ethanol company APEX-Brazil much to the consternation of their midwestern fan base.  But that is for another story.

Bobby Rahal is a known entity in a series sorely lacking in recognizable names. Rahal-Letterman Racing which won the Indianapolis 500 in 2004 with Buddy Rice and Rahal, himself, won the Indy 500 in 1986 along with three CART championships.

The second Domino to fall was loss DirecTV as a presenting sponsor. According to the IRL, the DirecTV broke down when IRL signed a deal to air races on Comcast-owned Versus cable TV channel.

“One of DirecTV’s biggest competitors is Comcast,” John Griffin, IRL spokesman, said. “They felt it didn’t make sense to have their logo and support in a position where it supported a Comcast initiative in any way.”

If that is so then why can you get Versus on DirecTV?

The next Domino to totter was the e-mails sent out by Haymarket Worldwide that the IndyCar Series magazine will cease publication with immediate effect. I won’t spend time here discussing the place for print fanzines in today’s electronic marketplace, but I will tell you that this isn’t such a big surprise but it still is a negative announcement.

The fourth Domino is, for me, the most ominous.

KV Racing that they going to have to scale back their program in 2009 due to a lack of sponsorship, with co-owner Jimmy Vasser saying that they are currently set to run just one car this year. Vasser said that unless funding was found soon, the recently-signed Mario Moraes would be their sole representative in the 2009 championship. The team ran Will Power and Oriol Servia last year. In fact, KV Racing hasn’t found a single sponsor as Moraes is another ride buyer who brings his own money so as to race in the Indy Car Series.

As some of you already must have assumed, the V in KV Racing stands for Vasser. What makes me feel that this announcement is the most ominous is for who the K stands for. It stands for Kalkhoven, as in Kevin Kalkhoven the former majority owner of the rival Champ Car World Series and the very man who engineered the aforementioned re-unification.

This is the man who secretly engineered the merger without the Champ Car team owner’s knowledge and then stood up at the press conference at the Homestead-Miami Speedway last year and basked in the adulation of being heralded as the savior of Open Wheel racing in North America. He banked his and the other Champ Car team’s future on the IRL, and now, he can’t even find a sponsor for his team.

What does that say for the Indy Car Series? I know that the economy is rough right now, but to have all this negative press coming out of Indianapolis cannot be instilling confidence in anybody out their contemplating investing in the series.

Is this just an aberration? Will we soon be hearing announcement of sponsorship signings, new teams and a new engine deal?

As much as I am a fan I hate to admit that my suspicions lead me you believe that the bad news will continue to tumble out dominos.