INDIANAPOLIS - After the checkered flag dropped at the end of this year's Indianapolis 500, veteran driver Danny Sullivan had taken his car everywhere sponsor Visa U.S.A. wanted it to be.

Everywhere but Victory Lane, that is.

After nearly being swept up in a terrifying first lap accident, the 1985 Indy winner drove his PacWest Racing Team-entered car to as high as fourth place before handling problems put him a lap down. He wound up ninth behind winner Jacques Villeneuve.

But the ninth-place finish achieved the goals the racing team's primary sponsors - Visa and BankAmerica Corp. - had set for their participation in the world's premier auto race.

Randall Chesler, senior vice president for member relations with Visa, thinks involvement in the internationally popular IndyCar racing series is a great way to reach target markets at home and abroad.

"Being in IndyCar and associated with PacWest is a great opportunity to grow a big segment for us," he said of the $15 billion automotive product market. "We're looking into partnering with various vendors to bring the excitement of IndyCar racing to them through this sponsorship."

Auto racing, once the domain of auto manufacturers, parts dealers, and oil companies, has hit the big time with financial service companies looking for the same kind of brand recognition afforded such consumer products as Tide detergent and Valvoline motor oil.

The participation by Visa and BankAmerica - which sponsors the pit crew and traveling unit for PacWest - in the IndyCar series is not unprecedented. In 1978, Al Unser Sr. won the Memorial Day race here driving a car sponsored by Citicorp's travelers check operation.

But the involvement of these large financial services companies is an example of a growing trend.

"Research shows that fans will support products that sponsor the sports they like," said Andy Hall, a spokesman for the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, or Nascar. "That means they will buy Tide detergent or bank at First Union because of their support."

In fact, a survey of IndyCar racing by its sanctioning body, Championship Auto Racing Teams, shows that fans of the series are 35% more likely to buy the products of a company that sponsors a race car than the general public.

And the target audience has better demographics for these sponsors than many other events. Of spectators at IndyCar events in 1994, 42.4% had incomes exceeding $50,000. Another 31.5% made between $30,000 and $50,000.

For companies like Visa, there is more good news. Half of all spectators at Nascar's premier events use one of their credit cards.

MBNA was one of the first financial companies to recognize the value of supporting big-time auto racing. For several years, the company has offered racing fans affinity MasterCards with pictures of their favorite IndyCar and Nascar drivers. At this year's Indy 500, the company promoted its cards at a special booth next to the T-shirt and souvenier vendors outside the track.

This year the Delaware-based company stepped up its involvement in the racing scene by sponsoring the Winston Cup efforts of veteran Nascar driver Jimmy Hensley. In September, MBNA will sponsor a 500-mile race at its hometown race track, Dover Downs International Speedway.

"Nascar is a big family and there is a great affinity toward these products," said Peter Osborne, a spokesman with MBNA. "We're very pleased with the response to our marketing efforts and to Nascar and the drivers who endorse our products."

It's not just credit card companies that are getting in on the show, though. Banks, too, have found the medium effective. For example, First Union Bank of Charlotte has sponsored a Nascar race on the five-eighths-of- a-mile oval track in North Wilkesboro, N.C., for more than a decade. Likewise, Meridian Bancorp of Reading, Pa., has sponsored a Busch Grand National race - the minor leagues of stock car racing in the United States - at Nazareth, Pa., for the last two years.

The reasons are as varied as the market for each bank. First Union said the race sponsorship offered an opportunity to promote its presence in northwestern North Carolina following the 1985 acquisition of North Wilkesboro-based Northwestern Financial Corp. Thanks to an explosion of interest in the sport, the decision looks like a good one.

"It's a hot sport these days," said Gene Kennedy, vice president of advertising for First Union. "It's becoming more of a high-profile sport."

By sponsoring a race featuring Chevrolets, Fords, and Pontiacs, Meridian has used its participation as a way to get close to its 600 auto dealer customers.

"Our auto dealers just love it," said Dean Schott, marketing administrator for Meridian. "They see this as supporting them."

Sometimes, however, there is the added benefit of the business relationships that come along with the sponsorship. For Meridian, it did not hurt that its customer base included one of the companies owned by Roger Penske, who has interests in several automotive companies as well as being the owner of the Nazareth race track. He is also one of the most successful race team owners in IndyCar and Nascar racing history.

BankAmerica's support of Seattle-based PacWest Racing has had similar benefits. While sponsoring hospitality suites at certain races gives the bank the opportunity to entertain auto dealer clients, it also allows the bank to hobnob with an even wealthier.

The PacWest team is bankrolled by a group of investors that reads like a who's who of Seattle business. Headed by Bruce McCaw, a former director with McCaw Cellular Communications and owner of the National Basketball Association expansion team in Vancouver, British Columbia, it includes Wes Lematta, chief executive of Camas, Wash.-based Columbia Helicopters. With this kind of backing, BankAmerica is willing to maintain a more complete banking relationship with the racing team than is customary.

But the ultimate benefit for BankAmerica has come from the strengthened relationships with business owners like auto dealers.

"What we're looking to gain from our relationship with PacWest is broadened access to the automotive world," said John Stafford, a BankAmerica spokesman.

For added exposure, the bank also sponsors the 300-mile September IndyCar race at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif.

Even foreign banks are getting in on the act. For years, Banco Nacional in Brazil was a prominent sponsor of the late Formula One champion Ayrton Senna. Today, Sao Paulo-based Banco Bandeirantes sponsors Brazilian driver Mauricio Gugelmin, Danny Sullivan's PacWest teammate.

Such a relationship is particularly pertinent given the popularity of IndyCar racing in the South American country. In fact, plans call for the IndyCar series to launch an annual race in Brazil next year. This expansion will give Visa a high-profile position in one of its fastest-growing markets.

"We see this as a way to continue our momentum, and being the primary sponsor for PacWest is a great way to do that," said Mr. Chesler.

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