Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Dancers, ninja warriors, bachelors … and, oh yeah, IndyCar drivers

ST. PETERSBURG — Even if you've never watched a lap of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg or the Indianapolis 500, you might have seen some of the IndyCar Series' drivers on TV.

Maybe you saw Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly crisscross the globe on The Amazing Race.

Or Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe foxtrot and jitterbug on Dancing with the Stars.

Or Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden leap and swing across obstacles on American Ninja Warrior.

That's not an accident. It's part of a concerted effort by IndyCar to expand its fan base. By introducing its drivers through non-racing TV shows, the series hopes viewers follow their stars to the track, where the product can sell itself.

"Ultimately what sport is trying to do is get new fans to the sport," said Kate Guerra, IndyCar's national media outreach senior manager. "We really feel like putting an emphasis on those mainstream opportunities is what's going to get those new fans."

IndyCar pursues those mainstream opportunities with two staff members, an intern and two contractors. Their goal is to connect racers with shows that display their diverse personalities and backgrounds while branding the series as fast and cutting-edge.

RELATED: Grand Prix of St. Petersburg schedule, ticket info

American Ninja Warrior was an obvious match for IndyCar (which likes to showcase its racers' athleticism) and for Kanaan (a fitness buff and triathlete). Castroneves' magnetic personality made him a natural on Dancing with the Stars, which he won in 2007.

"The moment I spoke to him, he was in," co-executive producer Deena Katz said.

While IndyCar has one main objective in promoting its drivers this way, the racers have different reasons for participating, starting with the obvious: It's fun.

"Why would you not do it?" said Newgarden, IndyCar's reigning series champion and a 2016 American Ninja Warrior contestant.

Even though these opportunities have little to do with driving a car at 180 mph, 2014 series champion Will Power said they're part of the job.

"The reason you race is because you have a sponsor," Power said. "Your job is to get that sponsor out and promote them the best way possible."

Sometimes that means shaking hands at business functions. Other times, it's breakdancing in a silver Verizon fire suit on Celebrity Family Feud.

When IndyCar asked Rossi about going on The Amazing Race, he had never even seen an episode. He agreed anyway, because of the exposure the series would gain through one of CBS' top rated shows.

"It wasn't to compete on TV or to try to win a million dollars, as much as that's a nice incentive," Rossi said. "It was really to try to build awareness for all of us."

The brand awareness can be subtle, like the IndyCar hat Rossi wore on the show.

Arie Luyendyk Jr. only competed in one IndyCar race, but his background and famous father (a two-time Indy 500 champion) created an obvious hook when he was named The Bachelor. IndyCar provided a street-legal show car for one of the contestants, and Hinchcliffe and Castroneves gave interviews with ET about his odds of finding love. Luyendyk and his fiancée, Lauren Burnham, are expected to be in town this weekend.

Bigger appearances can be hard to finalize because of drivers' schedules — IndyCar's 17 races span from March to mid-September — conflicting TV contracts or the competitive nature of network television. IndyCar spent years building a relationship with The Amazing Race before finding the right timing and right pair: Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 champion, and Daly, his friend and roommate.

"Rossi and Daly were everything we hoped for in a team," said Elise Doganieri, the series' co-creator and executive producer.

Their success on the show was easy to quantify. More than 4 million people watched #TeamIndyCar finish fourth in last month's finale. IndyCar estimates that their appearance produced almost 74 million potential impressions on Twitter and Instagram.

Other shows have produced similar success. Hinchcliffe gained 26,000 followers and saw his Twitter impressions rise 10-fold to more than 10 million when he finished runner-up on Dancing with the Stars in 2016. Castroneves said 90 percent of people who recognize him on the streets know him as a dancing champion, not a three-time Indy 500 winner.

What all of those numbers mean for the series is harder to figure out.

IndyCar can't track how many people bought tickets or T-shirts because they loved Castroneves' cha-cha-cha, or how many people watch Sunday's Grand Prix because they rooted for Rossi on The Amazing Race.

But the series believes that its eclectic mix of drivers is the best way to grow. The only way for that to happen is to get their personalities in front of new viewers and let them do the rest.

"You're exposing IndyCar to millions and millions of people that don't necessarily cross over to your demographic," Guerra said. "The win there is in the opportunity itself."

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