The issue shot to the forefront last week when Danica Patrick announced she would stay in the IRL but switch from owner Rahal Letterman Racing to Andretti Green Racing. Ms. Patrick's main sponsor, Argent Mortgage, Irvine, Calif., has made an investment estimated at more than $10 million to sponsor her car and uniform and use her in ad campaigns.
"It's our sponsor, not hers," said Bobby Rahal, co-owner of the team with television personality David Letterman. Ms. Patrick could not be reached for comment.
Sponsor declines comment
Argent Mortgage released a statement last week declining to comment on whether it will sponsor a yet-to-be-determined driver for Rahal Letterman or stay with Ms. Patrick, who may be the IRL's biggest star despite never finishing higher than fourth.
The IRL's TV ratings jumped 53% on ABC and 33% on ESPN last year, and sales of IRL merchandise were up 75%, with Ms. Patrick's swag outselling other drivers' 10-1.
Most experts say Argent is likely to follow the precedent set earlier this year by UPS. The company followed Nascar driver Dale Jarrett when he left Robert Yates Racing to join the Michael Waltrip team. He also jumped to a Toyota, which will make its Nascar debut next year.
UPS has been Mr. Jarrett's main sponsor since 2001 and fashioned what many consider the model in sponsor-driver partnerships with its popular "Race the Truck" ad campaign. That brand connection was too important for UPS to give up, even as Mr. Jarrett struggles again this year. He is in 25th place in Nascar's Nextel Cup Series.
"Dale Jarrett has been an outstanding ambassador for the UPS brand, both on and off the track," said Patrick Guilbert, VP-sponsorships for UPS. "I don't know that any successful program is built entirely and solely on performance."
Michael Waltrip Racing also has main sponsor NAPA for the Toyota Camry Mr. Waltrip will drive next year, and Burger King and Domino's split primary sponsorship of a third car.
Toyota and Nascar
In fielding three cars, Toyota is making a significant investment in its 2007 debut season: Primary sponsorship of a Nascar driver can cost $15 million or more.
Several sports-marketing experts said it would be a shock if Argent stayed with Rahal Letterman.
"I can understand Bobby [Rahal's] feelings," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp, "but the association has always been between sponsor and driver."