Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Give INDYCAR's Stars A Chance To Shine

In my morning reading today, I stumbled across an article by the ever-opinionated Canadian auto racing journalist, Norris McDonald. Titled "Danica's gone, so now it will all be Rubens, Rubens, Rubens", McDonald's article claims that with Danica Patrick off to toil in NASCAR, all media attention this year will be focused on F1 crossover Rubens Barrichello. Oh, and possibly James Hinchcliffe, just a tad. McDonald writes:

Because Danica’s replacement as the only star in IndyCar is already in the series and his name is Rubens Barrichello.

...followed later by:

Actually, IndyCar is lucky that Rubens came along when he did because Danica left a huge, huge hole. She was the star because there were no other stars in that series.

Except maybe for James Hinchcliffe, who has the makings, and Rubens, there still aren’t.

I have to take exception to this, on a couple of points. In fact, perhaps all Mr. McDonald and I agree on is the fact the James Hinchcliffe has star potential (though I'd remove the word "possibly").

First, yes, Danica Patrick's presence in the IZOD IndyCar Series skewed the race coverage and media attention, we all know that. We know she will be mentioned in some gratuitous manner during at least the first ABC broadcast of the year (though I would love to be wrong about that). Although things got better when the writing was on the wall that she was leaving, all of us suffered through years of broadcasts focusing a disproportional amount on Danica, regardless of whether or not she was actually in contention. It was the way things were.

When a dense forest canopy doesn't allow much sunlight to penetrate to the ground, you end up with shorter, stunted plants and trees below. It's not that these plants can't grow, it's that they've not had exposure to sunlight. You don't assume they can't grow taller, but look at their environment as a possible explanation to their current state.

That's how it has been with Danica and the other drivers in the Series (and yes, I made a horticultural analogy on an IndyCar blog. Don't judge me). How can you judge a driver on what they can or can't do when they've been playing second fiddle for as long as they have?

As for Rubens Barrichello dominating this year's discussion, I'm as excited as anyone for his arrival, but again, McDonald's all-encompassing love of F1 is again on display. Yes, he'll be a big part of the proceedings. Yes, he will be a major asset and heightens the level of competition (perceived and real) in the Series. But I don't think for a minute this is a Nigel Mansell Redux, as McDonald seems to suggest. Barrichello is a storied, tremendous driver, but he is not World Champion. The media dynamics of 2012 are not the same as they were in 1993, and it is unlikely that the same storylines that dominated then will be repeated. It's a different time, a different world, and a transformed Series.

As I stated earlier, McDonald is correct on one point: James Hinchcliffe can be a star in this Series. But I believe the Series has learned their lesson from putting all their eggs in one basket. There simply cannot be a single star, be it Barrichello, Hinchcliffe, or anyone else. The need for multiple stars, even if they don't shine as bright as Danica once did, is paramount. That's why, along with IndyCar's re-emphasis on social media, you'll see multiple drivers from across the spectrum on NBC Sport's show INDYCAR 36. You'll see what smart, poised young American talent like Josef Newgarden and J.R. Hildebrand can do. You'll see what veteran drivers that have already built followings of their own, such as Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, can do when they are again two of the more recognizable faces in the Series. You'll see legacies like Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti out front, reminding people of the history and bonds of the sport. A couple of the ladies I work with have definite "opinions" (ahem) on Ryan Hunter-Reay. And yes, Hinch and Barrichello will have their place, too--but not on a raised throne (although I wouldn't put it past Hinch as a gag).

We are on Terra Incognita. Trying to apply history from 1993 to today's scenario is pointless. As the IZOD commercials like to tell us, "this is the dawning of a Brave New World". For a long time, the IZOD IndyCar Series drivers have been pushed somewhat to the background. These aren't corporate cut-out drones, mindlessly going through the motions. They're real people, with personalities, quirks, and interesting stories all their own. As Randy Bernard as fond of saying, "the storylines of our sport" must be visited and revisited. If INDYCAR and INDYCAR's partners can shine the light, some stars are there, ready to grow.

The direction and star power have not yet been determined for a transformed INDYCAR. To find that out, we've got to watch this season and beyond. Mr. McDonald may be keen to abruptly crown a new star, but we've already had a monarchy. Now, let's hope for a republic.


  1. Great post. I'm excited about the "star power" of the current crop of drivers. All of them are fairly young and media friendly, and don't seem to have a desire to be anywhere else (NASCAR, ahem). That might change but people should be pumped about what the series will look like for the next few years.

    1. I think "media-friendly" is a apt descriptor, Mike. Being media-savvy, like it or not, continues to grow in importance to a successful driving career. Yes, some drivers can get by without a surplus of it, but for guys like James Hinchcliffe or Joseph Newgarden, who really have a talent for that interaction, it can help with their overall notice.

  2. It's time for drivers to step out unafraid.

    Here's my abbrev list of memorable (non-racing) Indycar moments, that come to mind quickly:
    - AJ slams Luyendyk
    - AJ slams the laptop
    - Danica stomps down pit road
    - Danica 'towels' Milka
    - Danica confronts Wheldon
    - Wheldon, Rice, Meira don mocking t-shirts
    - Power's double-birds
    Nothing else comes to mind quickly. Need to see some genuine personality, ASAP. Not jackassery mind you, but real people who race.

    1. Zachary HoughtonMarch 7, 2012 at 3:46 PM

      Good list. Man, I still remember AJ vs. the laptop. And yes, you don't want to go too deep into jackassery. We've seen what happens when that occurs.