It has been a long series of weeks since the first race of the 2018 season, and an especially long one for your humble host since the second race is right here in my backyard. That is, if my backyard was an oval racing circuit and was about 50 miles closer.
At any rate, during my drive home from work each day I’ve passed a billboard that is advertising the Phoenix Grand Prix, and that billboard gives me mixed feelings. I can’t read all of the fine print, but I can make out three distinct things. An Indycar, the date “April 7”, and picture of Mario Andretti.
And every time I see this billboard, I think to myself, “Self, does this mean 78-year-old Mario Andretti is the most recognizable face in Indycar racing?”
And then I begin to weep silently in traffic.
Perhaps if Helio Castroneves had not been forced to, err, I mean, gleefully transitioned to sportscar racing then he would be the generally accepted face of Indycar. Three wins at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, one at the greatest spectacle in dancing, and one win in a highly publicized tax trial have provided him with nearly two decades of media exposure that would make drivers of any discipline jealous. He’s probably also helped by his amped up personality, as well as the fact that he’s been a pretty competitive driver for the last two decades.
But alas, Helio is gone and we’re left with Mario. Yeah, I know the event is celebrating his final win 25 years ago in Phoenix, but I haven’t seen any other billboards mentioning any of the stars of Indycar are coming to Phoenix, because, as much as it pains to type this, there are no stars of Indycar in the collective American consciousness.
Now I’m silently weeping over my keyboard. Can I get a Kleenex sponsorship?
OK, moving on with the post, let’s put Mario aside for a moment and try to figure out who would be the current face of Indycar. There are several candidates, but if you had to choose one who you thought would be the most recognizable face that would make your neighbor say “Oh, I can see by (fill in the blank)’s face on that billboard that there’s going to be an Indycar race in town!”
Let’s put it this way: if you were in the marketing department at Barber, or Pocono, or Portland – who would you put on a billboard?
Here are a few candidates:
Scott Dixon – In any other universe, Dixon would clearly be the most recognizable figure in the sport. He’s a four-time series champion, is one win from tying Michael Andretti for THIRD on the all-time wins list, and drove with sponsorship from a major US retailer for over a decade. And yet, he could probably walk anywhere outside of Indianapolis in total anonymity. Maybe even there, too. I mean, he doesn’t get recognized at Taco Bell.
James Hinchcliffe – While it’s arguable whether or not the Mayor of Hinchtown is actually the face of the sport, what is indisputable is that no one even comes close to his effort. Between his web site, constant social media interactions, and podcasts, Hinch has built himself into quite the brand. Add in his runner-up performance on Dancing With the Stars (where we were informed he nearly died in a crash at Indy…every single episode) and his current run in Honda commercials, and you’ve certainly got the current driver with the most media exposure.
Josef Newgarden – He’s young, he’s the reigning series champion, and he’s very, very personable. And yet, he could very well be the least recognizable person on this list to casual fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if NBC gives him a microphone and a cameraman and has him walk through paddocks in street clothes asking fans who won the Indycar series in 2017. Yeah, he’s going to need to win the Indy 500 to make any headway on this list.
Tony Kanaan – Last year during the celebration of their century of racing each other (well, it certainly feels like a century), Kanaan expressed how his rivalry with Helio Castroneves overshadowed a lot of other drivers. That’s debatable, but with Castroneves no longer participating as a fulltime driver Kanaan is definitely garnering a lot of media attention. Which says a lot about his popularity since he hasn’t won a race since 2014.
Helio Castroneves – Then again, maybe you can forget everything from the previous paragraph, because the Mister “Funtastic” will still be at Indy and will still receive the largest ovation of any driver this year. He never won a series championship, but I bet most casual fans don’t even realize this given his overall record of success. Speaking of, it would be interesting to know what percentage of casual fans will show up at races this year expecting to see Helio racing.
Danica Patrick – If you or I walked into a Verizon store we might not recognize each other. But that’s not important now. What is important is that if either of us read this list of names to people, I’m 100% sure “Danica Patrick” would be more recognizable than all the others combined. Moreover, if we showed only their pictures of their faces, the same result would be expected. Which is horribly sad, but will explain why somewhere between a third and a half of ESPN’s coverage of The Indianapolis 500 this May will feature the young lady in the DayGlo green car. Come on, you know this is true.
Final Lap: Before the 2018 season started Indycar.com held a pole to determine the series most popular driver. The winner, with nearly half of all votes, was the formerly fulltime driver known as Conor Daly. For real.
I’m going to go cry in a beer now.