EVENTS & PROMOTIONS;RACE RIVALS NEAR IGNITION;ABC VOTES FOR INDY, BUT U.S. 500 SNARES LARGE SPONSORS, TOO

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Sponsors betting on the Indianapolis 500 cheered last week when ABC committed to covering the race through 1999, guaranteeing long-term exposure.

But the forces behind the rival U.S. 500, running opposite the Indy 500 on May 26 at the Michigan International Speedway, acted unfazed despite the fact that only cable's ESPN has agreed to cover their inaugural race. The U.S. 500 claims more famous racers including Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Rahal, plus racing's biggest sponsors, including Philip Morris Cos.' Marlboro and Miller Brewing Co.

"True racing enthusiasts know the best drivers will be at the U.S. 500, and that's the audience we want to influence," said Mark Simo, chairman of young adult apparel marketer No Fear, one of 16 key sponsors signing onto the U.S. 500.

DOWNPLAYING TV'S ROLE

Some U.S. 500 sponsors even say ratings aren't as important anymore, with widespread audience fragmentation for all TV sporting events.

"You have to target people more precisely, and that's exactly what we're doing here," said Mark Coughlin, director of marketing at U.S. 500 sponsor Valvoline.

Other U.S. 500 sponsors include Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser, Target Stores, long-distance marketer LCI International, Texaco, American Honda Motor Co., Mercedez-Benz of North America and Toyota Motor Sales USA. The U.S. 500 was established earlier this year by Championship Auto Racing Teams as a reaction against the Indy 500's new race qualifying rules.

But organizers of the Indy 500-expected to draw more than 350,000 spectators vs. the U.S. 500's capacity of 100,000-say their new rival poses no threat to Indy's success, and many of its sponsors agree.

"The Indy 500 is the most spectacular event in all of racing-its sheer size and scope make it a terrific opportunity," said Derrick Johnson, corporate communications manager at Coors Brewing Co., which replaced Miller as sponsor of the Indy 500 Pit Stop Contest. Coors is also backing rookie Indy Racing League circuit driver Robbie Buhl.

DOZENS OF SPONSORS

Pennzoil Co., which replaced Valvoline as track sponsor at Indy, also believes it has scored the best deal along with dozens of other on-site Indy 500 sponsors including Eastman Kodak Co., Cotter & Co.'s True Value, Fleer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Firestone and Dodge. More than 100 other companies are represented by cars in the race.

The Indy 500's Indy FanFest is also expected to draw more than 250,000 attendees in its second year, with 10 days of on-site events including interactive games, videogames and sponsored activities.

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