Minus Danica, IndyCar has a chance to showcase new stars
For better or for worse, Danica Patrick was the face of IndyCar the last seven years.
The series' star despite limited results, Patrick caught the eye of the causal sports fan — often to the detriment of the other drivers. Now that she has moved on to NASCAR, IndyCar has a wide-open opportunity to fill the void she left behind.
As the series prepares for Sunday's season opener in St. Petersburg, the spotlight is finally shifting.
"You need 10 Danicas, not just one person who holds the series up, but 10 people who are very popular," said Penske Racing driver Will Power. "There's some pretty interesting personalities in the series."
Power, for now, is probably best known for his infamous obscene gesture toward series officials that was caught during the live broadcast of last season's race at New Hampshire. But the Australian should be lauded for his 13 victories — 11 in the last two seasons — and his intense rivalry with four-time series champion Dario Franchitti.
He's twice lost the title to Franchitti, and his intense desire to beat his rival emerged last season on and off the track. Power accused Franchitti of being a dirty driver, called him "Princess" on Twitter and proved to have the fire that, if Power were driving in the more popular NASCAR series, would have made him an overnight superstar.
"He had a few meltdowns last year," laughed Franchitti. "I haven't consciously tried to wind Will up; I think you saw his passion last year. I think you really saw how much it means to him."
Power, with a sharp sense of humor, is ready for some increased attention.
"I think anyone would like that role." He said. "That means success, right• Or does it?"
Results weren't part of it for Patrick, who had one victory and seven podiums in 115 career starts. But she had unbelievable marketing support from sponsor GoDaddy.com, which spent the money necessary to make her a star.
The sponsorship now goes to James Hinchcliffe, who replaces Patrick in the Andretti Autosport ride. Last year's rookie of the year seized his new job with a series of witty one-liners, referring to himself as "Manica," joking "I've got big heels to fill," and submitting a photo of himself with Patrick's hair for his IndyCar credential.
The 25-year-old Canadian has been preparing for this opportunity for some time. He's got a marketing savvy that belies his age and experience, and works nonstop at showcasing his personality.
Hinchcliffe designed his personal web site as if it were a community called Hinchtown. And he's, of course, the mayor. Visitors to the site can register to become a resident or click on the "cinema" section to view one of his many self-deprecating videos.
A video released last month shows Hinchcliffe at his home computer relentlessly pursuing the GoDaddy ride. He does impersonations of fellow drivers Franchitti and Helio Castroneves and harasses Patrick with voice mail messages until he's notified she's taken out a restraining order.
It's clear that as Hinchcliffe heads into his first full season of IndyCar, he's eager to take on some of Patrick's fame.
"I don't think we need to replace Danica. I think what is important is to let fans know that there is more than just one face of this sport," he said. "There are a lot of cool characters in this series. ... I think the pressure is on us to let those people get out there a bit more and let the fans know that there is more people to cheer for than just Danica.
"I think she did great things for our sport and brought a lot of attention at a very good time for us. But, I think going forward it is important that we branch out and let people know that it is more than just one driver."
IndyCar also received a boost last month with the addition of Rubens Barrichello, a wildly popular Brazilian who spent 19 seasons in Formula One.
But the series needs American drivers to truly appeal to the U.S. audience, and the time is now for them to step into the spotlight.
Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal are probably the most well-known names; both are the sons of beloved former open-wheel racers. Although it seems they've been around forever, Rahal is just 23 and Andretti turned 25 last week.
They've got 161 starts and three victories combined, but years of racing ahead of them. Although they have not yet built on the fame of their last names, they've got potential and time on their side.
This series actually boasts seven full-time American drivers, the most since 2007. It includes Ed Carpenter, a Butler University graduate who beat Franchitti in a wheel-to-wheel finish last year at Kentucky. He's formed his own team, has an American manufacturer in Chevrolet and a solid sponsor in Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka, owned by former Masters and U.S. Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller.
There's also 24-year-old JR Hildebrand from Sausalito, Calif., who deferred going to MIT to pursue his dream of being a race car driver. He nearly got his payday in last year's Indianapolis 500, only to crash while leading coming out of the final turn.
This season IndyCar also will introduce Josef Newgarden, a 21-year-old from Tennessee who parlayed last year's Indy Lights championship into a promotion to the big leagues with Sarah Fisher's race team. Newgarden is an unknown now but has a charisma similar to NASCAR star Carl Edwards that might just make him a fan favorite.
He's keeping his expectations in check for his IndyCar debut this weekend.
"If we could have a clean weekend, we could get a top 10, that would be amazing. That would set a good tone for us," he said. "We'd definitely love to be in the top 5, or on the podium. A win would be unbelievable, but we don't want to set our sights too high. We have a really clean weekend with no incidents, then I think we'll be really happy guys."