Bamboozled at the Brickyard …

Posted: May 18, 2008 in Uncategorized

Speedway Sightings …

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune — Chicago Sun-Times News Group — May 18, 2008
Speedway, Indiana

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Ask any engineer what makes an IndyCar go and you will likely get a long dissertation about the internal-combustion engine, gearbox ratios and the aero effects created by the car’s downforce. In fact, if you listen long enough, you will be bombarded with enough physics to make your eyes glaze over and head swim.

Ask any car owner what makes an IndyCar go and they will say one word … money.

The faster you want to go, the more money it takes.

One of the greatest misconceptions in motorsports is that race team owners can operate on the money they win on the track. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It takes sponsorship from either a privately held company or a corporation to adequately field a viable entry in IndyCar racing. And that doesn’t mean just writing a check; it means building a partnership between the car owner and the company that they both feel can successfully market their products.

A classic example of the pitfalls encountered in developing a solid relationship between a race team owner and a quality sponsor reared its ugly head here at the Speedway during the month of May, severely challenging the people at Sarah Fisher Racing.

Fisher’s trailblazing journey through IndyCar racing has produced several Indianapolis 500 and Indy Racing League records that still hold: youngest woman to compete (2000), fastest woman to qualify (229.439 mph, 2003), first woman with a podium finish (third place, 2000, Kentucky Speedway), first woman in North America to win a pole position (2002, Kentucky Speedway) and voted Most Popular Driver (2001, 2002, 2003).

So when the 27-year-old Fisher decided to start her own race team in 2008 with her husband Andy O’Gara and his father, John O’Gara, both IndyCar racing veterans, it was clearly a labor of love that drove her.

To complete in the IndyCar series it’s estimated that it takes $7-10 million, per car, to run with the leaders. Fisher’s effort is substantially shy of those figures. She operates out of a small shop on Rockville Road in Indianapolis and came to compete at the Speedway with one car, one engine, no wind-tunnel testing and virtually no laps on the car. But she was ready to compete and has qualified for her seventh Indianapolis 500.

What she wasn’t ready for was her primary sponsors disappearing during the first week of May. After trumpeting the arrival of her new sponsors at a news conference in April, in front of a crowd of 75 media members in attendance for the ribbon cutting of Sarah Fisher Racing’s new shop, it appeared that both ResQ, a sports drink company from Gulf Breeze, Fla., and Gravity Entertainment of Fort Lauderdale, were the very type of sponsors she needed.

Neither copmany has come through with the promised dollars, leaving Fisher’s sidepods virtually bare this month. She’s been successful in lining up several associate sponsors that, along with contributions from fans, are helping to keep the operation going, albeit day to day.

Northwest IndianasContribution

The terrific challenge that Sarah Fisher Racing has encountered in the last few weeks is not without precedent in Indianapolis 500 or big-time auto racing history.

Probably the most glaring example of a race team laying it all out on the line for a sponsor who was never really confirmed as paying his way was the run of the 1972 “Mystery” Eagle. Dan Gurney and his company, All American Racers were building some of the most technologically advanced Indycars (labeled the “Eagle”) in the world when they showed up at Indy for the month of May in 1972.

Gurney’s primary car, the No. 6 Olsonite Eagle, was the class of Gasoline Alley. Bobby Unser took the pole for the race at a new track record of 195.940 mph, beating the former pole speed record by 17.244 miles per hour, the largest track record incremental increase in the history of IMS.

Team owner Gurney was thrilled. Even more inviting was the proposition that if he could find sponsorship, he could run a second car.

Enter Chris Vallo, then of Highland. Vallo was the man behind CV Enterprises, whose logo sported the slogan “You Name It.” Vallo fancied himself an entrepreneur and was introduced to Gurney by Unser, who met him while driving for Nichels Engineering in 1971.

Gurney was desperate for sponsorship and Vallo was looking for another avenue to pursue his financial goals.

What wasn’t apparent to many at the time was that Vallo was being sued by Ray Nichels, who alleged Vallo had defaulted on his agreement to sponsor a $7 million stock car program preparing Pontiacs in NASCAR for David Pearson and Plymouths for A.J. Foyt and Unser in USAC.

Before anyone knew it, the No. 48 Mystery Eagle, driven by Jerry Grant, appeared on the track with the big CV Enterprises oval logo. The car ran so well it almost won the race. Grant was leading with 12 laps left when he unexpectedly pitted because his right-front tire was out of balance. During the confused stop, he was given fuel from Unser’s tank and subsequently was disqualified and scored 12th.

There was much discussion about who the man was behind the “Mystery” Eagle at Indianapolis that year.

Not long after Indianapolis, Vallo vanished from the Indy-car scene as he continued to fight a handful of lawsuits in Lake and Porter counties. He eventually would be imprisoned on two separate occasions and died in 2000.

Interview requests about Vallo and his relationship with Gurney have been politely refused by Gurney over the last several years. Gurney’s company would weather its involvement with Vallo and continues to build race-related vehicles to this day.

Nichels and Nichels Engineering were not so fortunate. Nichels’ financial challenges related to being associated with Vallo and CV Enterprises would sap his business of much-needed capital just as Chrysler Corporation pulled its support from all of auto racing in 1972.

Nichels would close his world-class race-car construction business and enter into a series of other business in the automotive and aircraft markets until his death in 2005.

Make no mistake about it.

It takes money to make the race cars go fast.

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