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IndyCars dilemma - More people know Mario than Dario
IndyCar built its reputation on sexy cars and fast tracks, but a familiar conundrum continues to dog the series. More people know Mario than Dario.

Mario Andretti, a 70-year-old racing legend who retired 16 years ago, is a bigger draw for fans than Dario Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar champion and winner of the 2010 Indianapolis 500.

Franchitti – best known by casual fans as actress Ashley Judd's husband – also is the defending champion of this weekend's Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway. Despite strides on the race course, the open-wheel series is still trying to gain traction with fans and sponsors.

How can the series put open-wheel racing back on a fast track?

"People come out to see household names," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing. "Helio (Castroneves, a Penske driver) won three Indy 500s, but that was nothing compared to the 28 million who saw him win 'Dancing With the Stars.' "

Said Castroneves: "Promotion is the biggest thing. (With DWTS), we were able to bring a lot of new fans and people to watch the IndyCar Series. … More exciting racing and more challenge – that's how you bring more fans to the series."

Attempting to woo back old fans, Infineon put together a "Legends package" for this weekend, featuring a chance to meet Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser Jr. and Mario Andretti.

"We're rebuilding that connection to Indy's glory days," said Steve Page, Infineon Raceway president. "We're trying to rekindle that legacy around the sport."

Danica Patrick remains the most recognizable IndyCar driver, but she's shifting her career toward NASCAR.

"Danica got some attention, but you can't build up a sport around one or two stars," Page said. "The sport is really getting some traction right now with its mix of younger and older stars."

Drivers like what they see – competitive racing and more cars on the grid.

"In this difficult economy, we had 27 cars at Mid-Ohio (earlier this month)," Franchitti said. "That's as many as I can remember for a long time, other than the Indy 500. In these economic times, while many series are shrinking, the IndyCar Series is actually getting bigger."

Added driver Raphael Matos: "We had 24 cars within one second (of each other) in qualifying. It doesn't get much more competitive than that."

Matos was among a contingent of drivers who visited Sacramento on Thursday to push Sunday's Grand Prix.

"Everything is going in the right direction," Matos said. "The merger between ChampCar and IndyCar was the best thing that could happen."

Former Formula One driver Takuma Sato, who switched to IndyCar this season, has been impressed by the level of competition.

"Simply, people don't know about it," he said of IndyCar. "I was one of those, too."

Fallout from open-wheel racing's nasty divorce still lingers despite its much-publicized remarriage. Major shake-ups followed the sport's 2008 reunification.

"One of the most important things for our open-wheel series is we're talking about where the series is going instead of wasting energy explaining the difference between ChampCar and IndyCar," Cindric said. "There was so much negative energy for so many years."

TV viewership remains weak, although it has shown some relative gains. Telecasts on the Versus network have averaged 402,000 viewers, up 24 percent from last year. But that's a national TV rating of 0.36.

"I think the product on track is very good," Franchitti said. "But I do think we need to improve the visibility on television."

Said Cindric: "TV exposure certainly still is a challenge. Versus brings a lot of potential. They embrace the human element. People like to watch people compete, but they want to know those people. That's what's differentiated NASCAR. People know the drivers."

The 2010 Indianapolis 500, telecast on ABC, drew 5.793 million viewers – down 20 percent from 2008. This year's overnight rating of 3.6 was the race's lowest since live telecasts of the "greatest spectacle in racing" began in 1986.

Meanwhile, 2010 attendance has held steady, although few IndyCar tracks release actual figures.

"In this economy, level is the new up," said Infineon's Page, who expects Sunday's race to draw about the same as last year's estimated weekend crowd of 40,000.

The bad economy dealt more blows to sponsor-dependent teams.

"At Penske Racing, we're essentially running two cars unsponsored," Cindric said. "That's definitely a challenge. Sponsors are looking for a return on investment. TV ratings have a lot to do with that, as well."

But drivers and team owners are extremely enthusiastic about two changes this year: IZOD coming on board as series sponsor and new CEO Randy Bernard.

"Since I've been in the series, right now, it's the best it's ever been," 2004 champion Tony Kanaan said in Sacramento. "People think everybody's struggling – and everybody is in motor sports, not just us. But we're definitely on the climb back up." Sacbee.com

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