Wednesday, August 17, 2011

IndyCar Driver Popularity: Changes In The Air?

Before the 2011 season began, I conducted a survey over at TrackForum to see who the most popular IZOD IndyCar Series drivers were. At the time, the Top 10 list looked like this (number of points in parantheses):

1) Simona de Silvestro (54)
2) Ryan Hunter-Reay (43)
3T) Tony Kanaan (42)
3T) Graham Rahal (42)
5) Will Power (39)
6) Helio Castroneves (32)
7) Paul Tracy (30)
8) Justin Wilson (29)
9T) Ed Carpenter (26)
9T) Dario Franchitti (26)

Of course, TrackForum is relatively for your hardcore fans; Danica Patrick could only manage a tie for P13, behind both Tomas Scheckter and Vitor Meira.

Here's some thoughts on driver popularity right now:

-I don't plan on running another poll until after the season is over, but I'm thinking the list will look much different after the season than before it. For one, I have to think James Hinchcliffe will be front and center on many lists; with over half a season with Hinch in the books, he definitely seems to have found his spot as IndyCar's new clown prince (the fact he's locked in a great Rookie of the Year battle with JR Hildebrand doesn't hurt).

Yeah, he's silly. He's also one heck of a driver.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
-Speaking of Hildebrand, I have to think his stock his gone up. He handled the disappointment of his unbelievable Indy 500 crash with as much grace and class as any driver could have. If he wasn't on fan radars before, he has to be now.

-Paul Tracy has been very quiet after the Trackforum/Twitter hacking incident; it's hard to tell after a disappointing season if the Chrome Horn has tarnished with the fans, or dulled without that normal line of communication PT usually kept open. We'll have to see if he remains as popular with the fans after all is said and done.

-Tomas Scheckter just missed the Top 10 on the list, but has remained very visible, with a battle with Graham Rahal on Twitter, breathtaking passes at Indy and New Hampshire, and a pretty high visibility for a guy only running a few races this year. TScheck seems to be one of those guys that fans either love or despise, so it's hard to get a read on where he's at.

-Pippa Mann got big cheers at Indy, but her New Hampshire experience was one she'd rather forget. Does she retain her popularity if the rest of her season goes south?

-Simona de Silvestro seemed to be everyone's favorite last year, but she's struggled badly at times this year. Will the memory of her incredibly gutsy drive to make the field, along with her winning personality keep her near the top?

-What about Ryan Hunter-Reay? He's often mentioned as the best or one of the best Americans in the field, and he's come on strong in the last month or so. Does he keep that popularity, and does IndyCar start giving us some RHR decals and diecasts?

-I've seen less and less negativity and a bit more praise in regards to Takuma Sato. He's still inconsistent and too crash-prone, which drives people nuts, but I think he's definitely finding his niche with fans. I don't think he'll ever have the popularity of a Kanaan or de Silvestro, but I think a lot of fans are finding him a pretty easy guy to cheer for all the same.

Sato's 2nd season: Up and down, but gaining fans?
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
-At best, Helio Castroneves has been quiet this year; at worst, he's seen way too many incidents on-track. The charismatic driver usually manages to get his victories in at some point during the year, but if this extended funk continues, does he drop in terms of fan support?

-I suppose the big question is how Will Power and Dario Franchitti are doing in terms of fan support. Will has been a show to watch in terms of reactions and interviews this year, and even after the New Hampshire Double Bird, it seemed like more fans than not embraced him. Franchitti on the other hand, is acknowledged as an incredible talent, but Twitter went absolutely wild when he crashed out on Sunday. Whether it's his dominance, his complaints interviews, or something else, he seems to be not exactly in high regard from a vocal portion of the fan base right now. Make no mistake, both he and Will have the adherents, but I just wonder how it's changed since before the season started.

My gut feeling? In terms of driver popularity, Power's up, Dario's down somewhat. Both James Hinchcliffe and Oriol Servia are on the way up. Paul Tracy will be down a bit. Guys like Justin Wilson and Ed Carpenter are universally regarded as Good Dudes, and probably won't do anything to drop in popularity. Scheckter is Scheckter, which means nothing would surprise me. Danica is probably treading water, with perhaps a slight drop in anticipation of NASCAR in 2012. TK is a great underdog story, and will stay popular. I think if Ryan Hunter-Reay continues on this tear he's on, that can only help nudge him up. As for our preseason champ Simona, I think she's still very much a fan favorite despite (and in some cases such as Indy, due to) her struggles.

Overall, when all is said and done after the season, I think we'll see some new faces among the fan favorites in IndyCar.

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