Now that Danica Patrick is gone, who is the new face of IndyCar?

ST. PETERSBURG

Let's get this out of the way quickly: Danica Patrick isn't here. • She's not in IndyCar, not racing in today's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. • NASCAR analyst Darrell Waltrip recently anointed her "the face of NASCAR" before she ever turned a lap in Sprint Cup, so it goes without saying and without dispute that she had been the face of IndyCar for seven years. • So, can one person replace that kind of marketability, that kind of media attention? • Perhaps a better question: Should it be up to one person to be the face of IndyCar? • "I think anyone would like that role. That means success, right? Or does it?" said driver Will Power, no doubt recalling that Patrick won just once in 115 IndyCar starts. "Yeah. I'll take good results over that sort of thing." • Banking on someone who isn't winning can be tricky — Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s long winless streak has hurt NASCAR's ratings. • "In your overall long-term strategy, you have to say, may the cream rises to the top," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said Saturday. "… We can't invest millions of dollars trying to make someone that isn't there. They have to be a winner in order for you to make a star. My job is to take the very best drivers in the world and give them the opportunity to showcase their skills."

One IndyCar driver Bernard mentions most prominently is Dario Franchitti. And certainly the Scotsman seems to have it all in terms of appeal — he is a four-time series champion including the past three years, he has a vibrant personality, and even possesses a dash of glamor with his marriage to Ashley Judd.

Franchitti said he's not that concerned with that level of fame and that without results, "the rest of it is just noise."

Still, he said, "I've always been of the opinion in any kind of racing, any kind of sport really, the attention should go to the winners," Franchitti said. "I've seen that happen more and more the last couple of years."

Graham Rahal, who won in St. Petersburg in 2008 to become the youngest winner in IndyCar history, said many drivers can stand to benefit.

"In the past you have one person that gets all the focus, a person that really isn't among the best drivers in the series," Rahal said. "Nor is it a person really among the best personalities. … And I respect Danica tremendously, my dad is the one who gave her a start (Bobby Rahal signed her to Rahal-Letterman in 2005). For many years she was like a sister to me. But at the same time you've got guys here the likes of (Ryan) Hunter-Reay, or the likes of Power. Guys that have a ton of personality that have been around a while. They deserve their shot."

Scott Dixon, the all-time victory leader under IndyCar sanction with 27, sees a downside to having one person as the focus.

"I think it's almost unsafe to do that because if that one person leaves it takes maybe a majority with them," he said. "It's probably better to share the love, creating maybe four, five, six (big stars). Which NASCAR, I think, do a very good job. They reach different demographics with each person."

One person in IndyCar who has mastered crossing demographics is Helio Castroneves. He has won three Indianapolis 500s but says he earned far more fans by appearing on, and winning, Dancing With The Stars.

"It's a no-brainer," said Castroneves, who won his third Indy 500 in 2009. "Certainly with Dancing With The Stars, when you have 25 million people watching Monday and Tuesday, it's very difficult for you to beat that. It was a win-win situation."

Hunter-Reay, Patrick's former teammate with Andretti Autosport, said making that kind of connection with fans outside the car is crucial.

"Linking the fan to the driver, that's the human aspect," Hunter-Reay said. "The fans love the cars, love the performance. But what's really cool about auto racing is that there's actually a human being in there driving. The fans want to be behind the drivers whether they dislike one driver and really like another. That's what professional sports is all about."

He also said a little bad blood isn't bad for business.

"I think we need some real heated rivalries rather than just Twitter jabs," Hunter-Reay said.

Franchitti said those rivalries are more hidden at times.

"We've done a good job of separating it. And I think sometimes to our detriment as a series," Franchitti said. "People have said, "Oh, they can't be serious, because these guys are hanging around going to dinner.' "

James Hinchcliffe, the newest driver at Andretti Autosport, also inherits the GoDaddy.com sponsorship. He says there's no point being upset over the attention lavished on his sponsor's "other" driver, now in NASCAR.

"It's the nature of the beast," Hinchcliffe said. "This is the business we're in. ... We all know how it works. If you don't like it, buy a tennis racket."

It's worth noting that women have been voted the series' most popular driver nine times since 2001. Sarah Fisher won the award three straight years when she started in the series. And if the cheers Simona de Silvestro received last year at the Indy 500 are any indication — many undoubtedly in recognition for her comeback from a wreck earlier in May that burned her hands — she could receive a big bump in popularity. She's now one of two women in the series full-time along with rookie Katherine Legge.

"For me the important thing is that people like what I'm doing on the racetrack," de Silvestro said. "I have quite a lot of people that are supporting me; at Indy it was unbelievable, all the fans cheering me on. I'm not trying to replace anybody, I'm just trying to do my job and do it the best that I can."

The Swiss driver is also part of a diverse, global contingent including Tony Kanaan and fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, a longtime Formula One star.

In the end, Power said there is no shortage of options if any displaced fans seek a new IndyCar rooting interest.

"I think it's good in a way. It puts the focus on everyone else, and it puts the focus on actual competition," he said. "There's some pretty interesting personalities in the series — Hinchcliffe, he's a sort of an outgoing sort of dude, I think good for the series. We've got (Rubens) Barrichello coming in. There's just a lot of good drivers. … You need 10 Danicas, not just one person to sort of hold the series up."

Now that Danica Patrick is gone, who is the new face of IndyCar? 03/25/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 25, 2012 11:39am]

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