A new feature that we’re hoping to make a regular part of our off-season coverage is a round-table style of Q&A. Regular op-ed contributor John Olsakovsky will pose a question to those of us here at OpenPaddock, and we’ll all with our own style, option, and perspective provide a response. Once compiled, we’ll post those responses and the debate will begin! Agree with any one of us? Think we’re all off our nut? Share your opinion with us in the Comments section below!
QUESTION OF THE WEEK
We’re all aware that IndyCar needs as much help as it can get. Drivers with name recognition like Juan Pablo Montoya can only help to draw new or return fans, although the jury is out on how many. Other drivers have been reported to be interested in an IndyCar ride including Kurt Busch and Sam Bird. Which driver do you think would have the most significant positive impact on IndyCar and why, regardless of how realistic a possibility?
Dale Jr. – He is the most popular driver in America. That would draw the most eyeballs, but even then, it would be a small short lived bump. Unless a series of highly skilled and popular drivers from other series started making IndyCar their home, I don’t think there would be any long term impact. To get those highly skilled & popular drivers, IndyCar needs to be seen as a viable career path. To make IndyCar a viable career path there needs to be much higher purses and good paying seats. To get higher purses and good paying seats, there has to be more sponsor interest. To get more sponsor interest, there has to be higher TV ratings. So, my opinion is, if you want popular drivers to bring eyeballs to the series, you are getting the cart before the horse. Build the product, and it will naturally attract the talented and popular drivers. And that is not just building IndyCar, but the ladder as well.
But, just for fun, can we put the Stig in a car?
I truly think that having a driver like Kurt Busch is a great idea and frankly he would be the guy I selected. When you look at Kurt, you get a guy that just goes out and drives the wheels off the race car. He is not big on the sponsorship/corporate scene, but can get it done on track. His attitude is like that of Tony or AJ. I really like that in a driver and I think he would help elevate what is a pretty sad grid in terms of just getting out there and driving the wheels off. IndyCar has made it to where the driver has to be better at selling himself/herself than driving the car. I think another great name would be someone like Felipe Massa or even like a Kimi Raikkonen. I understand that both are F1 types and Raikkonen shows no signs of going anywhere after resigning with Ferrari, but the common factor here is the drivers drive first and worry about sponsors second. Those are the types of guys or even gals we need in the series.
I think this question is hiding a bigger problem than Indy. What it’s hiding is that we don’t need big name drivers coming into Indy car. We need to create big name drivers, essentially what Champ Car did with Seb Bourdais that made him because of his success and gave him the opportunity he received over the years: F1, LeMans, etc. But my apologies back to the question I think in the comparison of Kurt Busch and Sammy B that it is a case of short term long term. Short term will be Busch entry. I’m not a firm believer in the idea that getting NASCAR drivers into the sport will breathe life back into the series. However I think Kurt, being one of the most dynamic and outspoken drivers will help for a short span. There will be people that follow him to Indy and watch and hopefully some of them get the bug although most will probably not. Sam Bird, however, will be better long term and he will make no difference to racing here for the fans. What he will do is give Indy car a place that it is a premier racing series right there with F1. That can be part of your progression as a racing driver. This comes into play now where is not only hard to get Into F1 but as well hard to get into the feeder series to F1. This with more top name European coming over (Montoya, Di Grassi, Bird?, Conway, etc.) it is proving that this is not just pokey ol’ Mercia, but this is a place to race at a premier level, and with these Europeans coming of over I would hope, over time it breeds into a pathways for many more.
There is only one active driver across all disciplines that has enough popularity with non-race fans that could significantly increase draw: Patrick Dempsey. I believe that his appeal with fans of his television show would attend a race, if for no other reason than to get Dr. McDreamy (as he’s jokingly called by some in the paddock) to sign something of theirs. It sounds silly, but the women that come to see their favorite star will bring boyfriends, husbands, kids, friends and whoever to see a race, possibly their first. They may be future race fans that will continue to follow racing and hopefully IndyCar and North American open wheel racing specifically. One of the problems is that Dempsey, much like Paul Newman, has found a home in sports car racing, and isn’t likely to seriously attempt to run anything without fenders. I’m sure his producers wouldn’t allow it either.
If you wish to elevate the visibility of IndyCar racing in the North American market, you’ll need a lot more than just a name. Would Tony Stewart, Jimmy Johnson, Dale Jr, Clint Boywer, or [insert NASCAR name here] achieve that? Yes, for a single event. …maybe. One of the longest tenured and grand-prix winning Formula 1 drivers ever, Rubens Barrichello, wasn’t enough to help IndyCar so I think you can rule out any overseas driver immediately. This includes Juan Pablo Montoya. Is he an amazingly versatile and skilled racecar driver? Absolutely! Does he have name recognition here in North America? If he didn’t before he hit the jet dryer at Daytona, he does now. JPM coming to IndyCar, however isn’t going to attract any new eyeballs to IndyCar. The NASCAR viewers are just as likely to say “good riddance” to him and not even notice he’s gone from their sport. IndyCar has some dynamic events, and some great on-track racing and action. It has the most clearly defined ladder program in motorsport, and IndyCar demands that it’s drivers know how to race on a wide variety of circuits. It has one of the most iconic events in all of motorsports, an event that still reigns as the largest single-day sporting event in the world! A single driver isn’t going to cure IndyCar’s woes. Being viewed as a more professionally operated outfit will. Debacles such as Baltimore and Houston this year MUST be avoided. Then and only then will the broadcast partner relationships, attractiveness to sponsors, and interest from the casual sporting fan improve. Until then, the sport is left with us old curmudgeons who will watch to the bitter end, the hardcore fans, but we’re not enough to provide the return on investment sponsors are seeking.