IndyCar looking for star power

Drivers have great stories to tell, but is anyone listening?

  • Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Team Penske Chevrolet Dallara prepares for practice for the Grand Prix of Baltimore.
Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Team Penske Chevrolet… (Brian Cleary, Getty Images )
August 31, 2013|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

You can't say IndyCar lacks for stories.

There's Helio Castroneves, the photogenic Brazilian driver who won "Dancing With the Stars" and currently leads in his quest for a first season championship.

There's his countryman, Tony Kanaan, an affable veteran who brought tears to the eyes of many racing lovers when he finally won the Indianapolis 500 this year.

Yet IndyCar faces a vexing question as drivers prepare for Sunday's third Grand Prix of Baltimore. Why aren't Castroneves, Kanaan and their peers perceived as national stars on par with their NASCAR counterparts or past greats such as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt?

IndyCar, the premiere open-wheel series in the U.S., has faced several difficulties in recent years, from declining television ratings to the pending loss of title sponsor IZOD. But sports marketing experts agree that IndyCar cannot regain the ground it has lost unless its drivers forge connections with the general public.

"It's absolutely essential," said Zak Brown, whose Indiana-based Just Marketing International specializes in motorsports.

It's a frustrating conundrum for the drivers, who deliver an exciting product on the track and come off as plenty likable when they speak in public.

"I think there are plenty of personalities. We have a very good series, very competitive," Kanaan said. "I think sometimes we point fingers at the wrong problem. I think we find problems where there aren't any. … It's a matter of being out there on TV. When you turn the TV on, you have your product out there every day on a different network. That's how you're going to attract people."

Kanaan is right, said Brown, who earlier this year turned down an offer to become the CEO of IndyCar.

"If you put a microphone in front of Tony, he's a great interview," Brown said. "It's not his job to get the microphone in front of him."

It is the job of Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar's parent company, Hulman & Co. Miles, formerly the CEO of the ATP men's tennis tour, said the series needs to improve its promotion of drivers. But he believes in the raw material.

"I love our guys," he said. "I think they're almost universally handsome and cut. They're articulate. They can sell themselves. It would've been tough to pick a significant number of men's tennis players and take them to an investment banking conference. Not so with our drivers."

Nonetheless, IndyCar drivers are substantially less famous than NASCAR drivers, said Henry Schafer, a branding consultant whose Q scores are a widely used measure of celebrity appeal. Schafer's April survey found the average IndyCar driver was known to 25 percent of the public compared to 40 percent for the average NASCAR driver.

He said Castroneves is as widely known as many NASCAR counterparts but added that the Brazilian's Q score of 13 is dwarfed by those of top NASCAR drivers, including former IndyCar star Danica Patrick, whose Q score is 23.

"The emotional connection to sports fans is clearly not as strong," Schafer said.

He said today's drivers also rank well behind open-wheel stars of the past. Mario Andretti, who hasn't driven regularly for 20 years, was still known to 74 percent of the people Schafer surveyed, and his Q score of 23 would make him the most appealing star in IndyCar today.

'Harder to stand out'

There's a chicken-and-egg debate to be had. Did IndyCar lose popularity because its drivers lack star power? Or have the drivers failed to become stars because IndyCar was outmaneuvered by NASCAR and other sports leagues in marketing new faces and securing prime television real estate?

"NASCAR did such a fantastic job of building," said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based sports marketing consultant. "And there are so many more sports out there now that are getting attention. It just becomes harder and harder to stand out."

Television is the No. 1 problem, Brown said. With the majority of its races on the little-watched NBC Sports Network, IndyCar simply doesn't receive wide exposure for much of the year. That might change in 2015, when NASCAR will begin a deal with NBC that's expected to bring more racing viewers to the cable network and hopefully boost IndyCar's ratings in the process.

But for now, there's no obvious remedy.

"We've got to do a lot of things better," said Miles, citing social media, schedule stability and sponsorship as other areas for improvement. "There's no silver bullet."

IndyCar had a major star in Patrick, who drove the series for seven seasons before she departed to NASCAR in 2011. But after producing an initial bump in television ratings, even she couldn't reverse the overall decline. Patrick's impact might have stagnated because, despite her appeal as a sex symbol or an emblem of female empowerment, she only won one race.

"She was becoming less competitive," Brown said. "You look at Tiger Woods. He was interesting when he first came in, but then he dominated. You have to win to keep people's attention."

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