The global nature of the American-as-apple-pie racing event held May 28 may have been best illustrated by Brazilian Christian Fittipaldi's Ford car: the sponsors' logos were arrayed to look like a Brazilian flag.
And then there was Jacques Villenueve, the first Canadian to win the annual Memorial Day holiday event. More than 400,000 people turned out in Indianapolis to view the competition, but the proud sponsor of the winning car was a company most Americans don't even recognize: Player's Ltd. cigarettes, marketed by Canada's Imperial Tobacco Co.
No matter. ABC's broadcast also provided hours of live exposure for U.S. sponsors' logos on 33 qualifying cars. The marketers included Miller Brewing Co., Duracell, Mobil Oil Co., CNN and Target Stores.
The surging international interest in Indy 500 seems only to have whetted the interest of global marketers here and overseas for the ultimate racing sponsorship.
"It's our heritage," said Bob Walters, public relations director of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the 500. "Foreign presence in this race goes back to 1911. Our original name was the International Sweepstakes."
Valvoline Co., sponsor of driver Robby Gordon's Walker Racing Team, said it welcomes foreigners.
"We market in 130 countries," said Mark Couglin, Valvoline sports marketing director. "It helps us justify the cost of the car, and costs have been escalating greatly over the past 10 years."
Mr. Couglin said Valvoline pays $5 million just for exclusive advertising on TV and exclusive rights for motor oil at the speedway. It then pays extra to sponsor the racing team.
Car deal can cost $7 million
Sponsorship of an Indy car can cost anywhere from $200,000 to $7 million. Backing a team, which may have several cars, can be even more expensive.
New Indy 500 sponsor Visa USA said the race is its third-biggest event of the year, behind the Olympics and the National Football League. "We are looking for additional exposure...... racing has millions of fans around the world," said Sandra Stairs, corporate relations manager.
Trading card marketer Upper Deck Co. also backed the Indy 500 for the first time this year, though baseball remains its heaviest area of sponsorship.
Of course, the two companies with the biggest opportunity for product exposure were Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Co., with high stakes attached to the marketer whose tires cross the victory line first.
Neither company is an official sponsor of a car or team; they just supply tires and in exchange get their names on the cars.
"We work with the teams who test cars," said John Perduyn, VP-public affairs at Goodyear. "We have a logo on the car but don't sponsor anyone."
Good year for Goodyear
Goodyear made it into the winner's circle this year with Mr. Villeneuve. Mr. Perduyn said the company took advantage of that to break a print and TV campaign last week via J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit.
"It is an opportunity to showcase technology," Mr. Perduyn said.
While Goodyear gets to brag this year, from 1911 to '71 Firestone brought home 48 winners. Firestone went into hiding for two decades until it was purchased by Bridgestone in '93. Now the company is making a serious Indy comeback.
"When you win, that gives you even more to showcase," said John Taylor, Firestone's public relations manager.
Almost as an afterthought, after days of stories, was the fact that famed team leader Roger Penske, sponsored by Philip Morris Cos.' Marlboro, failed to qualify after winning 10 Indy 500 races.
Does anyone care?
"Only Marlboro," Mr. Taylor said.