Crown Royal to sponsor Brickyard 400

INDIANAPOLIS -- Crown Royal wants to take its shot in a new NASCAR venue.

On Thursday, the distiller said it had agreed to become the new title sponsor of the Brickyard 400. Track and company officials did not provide financial details, saying only that it was a multiyear contract.

This year's Brickyard 400 is scheduled for Sunday.

Starting in 2012, the race will be renamed the Crown Royal "Your Hero's Name Goes Here" 400 at the Brickyard. The company plans to hold a contest to select the fan's name that will be incorporated into the title, as it did previously at Richmond.

"We'll continue to look for ways to partner with Richmond as we move forward, but at this time, we're focusing on the Brickyard," said Heather Boyd, the company's senior brand manager. "The NASCAR community has always been very important to Crown Royal and has been very loyal to our business. We're still trying to figure out how to engage that moving forward."

Overall, though, Crown Royal is expected to reduce the amount of money it spends in Sprint Cup next season.

In June, the company said it would drop its sponsorship of Roush Fenway Racing after this season, and parent company Diageo said it would not renew its deal as an official NASCAR partner. Crown Royal has been the primary sponsor of Matt Kenseth's car the last two seasons, and before that had sponsored Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

Boyd said it was still possible the company could play a bigger role than expected in Cup racing next season and becoming title sponsor of the biggest stock car race outside of the South will achieve part of the company's goal.

"We'll look at our options," Boyd said.

Crown Royal also may benefit from the Nationwide Series and Grand-Am races being held on Indy's historic track for the first time next summer.

Speedway CEO Jeff Belskus hopes a revised schedule reinvigorates interest in a race that has seen attendance steadily dwindle.

Last year's race drew an estimated 140,000 fans, a record low, and this weekend may not be much better.

In May, Belskus said ticket sales were running behind last year's pace and expressed concern about the potential for even more empty seats this time.

Since then, track organizers have announced several promotional events, ranging from additional concerts to a beach bash in the third turn on race day, in an attempt to sell more tickets. Ticket holders from the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky, which was beset by traffic problems, can even attend Friday's practice session for free and will receive $5 off the ticket price and free parking for Saturday's qualifications.

Whether it's the promotions, the timing or more interest, Belskus acknowledged ticket sales have improved and that organizers believe there could be stronger walk-up sales this weekend, too.

But the race will be nowhere near a sellout. Belskus said five grandstand sections will be closed on race day.

It's not the first time track officials have closed the grandstands. Speedway spokesman Doug Boles said it was done previously for the MotoGP and Formula One races that were held on the track's road course -- encompassing only about half of the traditional oval.

"It looks like we'll have well over 100,000 people here and that still qualifies as one of the largest events on the Sprint Cup circuit," Belskus said. "But we'd always like to sell more, and I hope we do sell more."

Belskus contends the attendance decline has more to do with a lagging economy, high gas prices, the tire fiasco of 2008 and the increase in Cup races throughout the Midwest than a lack of interest. And he points to attendance declines at other NASCAR tracks, including Bristol and Talladega, as evidence.

"What we're seeing here is typical with what much of NASCAR is seeing. You've seen soft attendance the last couple of years and we're no different," Belskus said.

Crown Royal is banking on the fact Indy is different.

"This partnership gives us the chance to take our national program to the next level at one of the most historic venues in motorsports," Diageo North American Whisky vice president Yvonne Briese said in a statement.