The Indy Racing League is pulling out of the economic pits as it battles for sponsorship.
If all goes well, the series could be headed toward a big payoff.
It's a major turnaround for a series that has long been overshadowed by NASCAR in the U.S. and recently cut a handful of jobs from league offices. Even the IRL's premier facility, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has had to cut jobs and close its hotel because of the recession.
Suddenly, the IRL's future looks brighter.
"Is it challenging out there? Absolutely, no question about it," said Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's commercial division. "But we feel, in motorsports, that we are the value league. We have a lot to offer and we are going to grow in 2009 in the most challenging economic environment in 50 years."
Apparently, some companies like the sales pitch.
On Monday, the series hosted officials from APEX-Brasil, a Brazilian trade organization, after recently completing one of the biggest deals in league history. The multiyear contract was expected to pump millions of dollars (euros) into the sport as the company provides ethanol for the series and television advertising.
On Tuesday, Sarah Fisher announced discount store chain Dollar General was doubling its commitment to the second-year team, giving one of the IRL's most popular drivers enough cash to attempt to qualify for four races this season. Last year, Dollar General sponsored Fisher's startup team in two races.
"Dollar General is excited about being a part of IndyCar racing for a second season by sponsoring Sarah Fisher in four races," company chairman and CEO Rick Dreiling said in a release. "We look forward to cheering for Sarah and SFR as her team continues to grow and succeed."
Series officials believe those deals could be a harbinger.
While the more lucrative NASCAR circuit has spent the past several months contending with team mergers and spending cutbacks from struggling automakers, some longtime supporters, like Kyle Petty, worry attendance could drop in 2009.
So the IRL is trying to make its case to companies that now find NASCAR investments too costly.
"We pursue sponsors on a regular basis and there is interest, but I'm not ready to say there's a groundswell," Angstadt said. "When you're the value property in any economically-challenged environment, you've got an advantage."
Not all is rosy in Indy, though.
The APEX-Brasil deal came only after the previous ethanol fuel maker pulled out of the series, prompting Midwestern farmers to air radio ads complaining the IRL had switched from an American product to a non-American product.
Angstadt said he doesn't anticipate more staff reductions in the IRL offices although he acknowledges those evaluations will be on a month-to-month basis.
And other well-funded teams aren't sure there's enough money to add cars to the lineup.
Team Penske announced on Tuesday that it had hired Australia's Will Power as a replacement driver for two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves until Castroneves' tax-evasion case is settled. If Castroneves is exonerated, Roger Penske, one of the series' icons, may not have enough money to run all three cars full-time.
"I can't tell you the last time we ran three cars," team president Tim Cindric said. "But we are a business in the motor sector and the racing sector is a very small part of the Penske operation. If the funding were there, we'd be running three cars."