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IndyCar's popularity rests with finding it's next Mario Andretti (Update) UPDATE A reader writes, Dear AR1.com, Your headline is partially right. IndyCar MUST find the next hero. Mario was a fan drawing hero because he did heroic things that captured the publics imagination. Part of his heroics was beating hero’s like Foyt, Unser, Rutherford etc. Hero’s drive sports.

How can this IndyCar argument still be going on? It has been obvious for years what INDYCAR’s problem is. There is no American hero’s to cheer for or engage with or follow. How can this be so difficult to understand? Zak Brown is only partially right when he says “it’s absolutely essential” for drivers to forge connections with the public. The American general public will never follow Pagenaud, or Conway, or Salo or even Dixon or Dario. Yes they appreciate great drivers but they have proven for years that they are not ‘connected emotionally” to them. These drivers do however drive the headlines in their own countries.

During the Olympic’s, NBC coverage demonstrated what the American’s are interested in - the American athletes and their stories and that’s what we saw every night on television. There were other great stories going on but American pride was aroused by American emotionally engaging story lines. Local and national pride is the great driver of sports.

How many experts like Henry Schafer (branding consultant) need to say the same thing, that IndyCar drivers don’t have celebrity appeal, before someone eventually sees it and acts accordingly. Mario Andretti still has appeal because he was a genuine hero. A hero because he did heroic things and therefore he ‘connected’ with the general public. Hunter-Reay is a good start but IndyCar is at such a low ebb right now that even winning a championship does not move the credibility needle very much. Even winning the Indy 500 for some drivers did not create hero status; just ask Buddy Rice or Buddy Lazier.

Low television ratings is NOT the problem, its the symptom. The problem is there is no emotionally compelling reason to tune into the races. Television thrives on emotionally engaging story lines and IndyCar does not provide them. Fix the problem and the symptoms also go away. The rot has been developing for more than 25 years with the erosion of the heroes and it will take years to turn it around.

IndyCar has many issues to be solved but it has to start with solving the biggest problem (no American heroes) NOT the biggest symptom (low television ratings).The next generation of Road to Indy ladder supported drivers like Vautier and Hawksworth is not the right next move.

Unless IndyCar STOPS it’s current direction  the sport as we know it today cannot thrive. Derek Daly

When that happens, that person will become a hero.  Heroes are super talented athletes who stand above all the rest.  The American argument is only partially correct. When Italian Zanardi dominated IndyCar racing he became a hero.  Fans gravitate to the elite, regardless of the nationality.  Being American is icing on that cake.  Mark C.

At 73 years old, Mario Andretti is still IndyCar's biggest Superstar
You can't say IndyCar lacks for stories.

There's Helio Castroneves, the photogenic Brazilian driver who won "Dancing With the Stars" and currently leads in his quest for a first season championship.

There's his countryman, Tony Kanaan, an affable veteran who brought tears to the eyes of many racing lovers when he finally won the Indianapolis 500 this year.

Yet IndyCar faces a vexing question as drivers prepare for Sunday's third Grand Prix of Baltimore. Why aren't Castroneves, Kanaan and their peers perceived as national stars on par with their NASCAR counterparts or past greats such as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt? zzzz

IndyCar, the premiere open-wheel series in the U.S., has faced several difficulties in recent years, from declining television ratings to the pending loss of title sponsor IZOD. But sports marketing experts agree that IndyCar cannot regain the ground it has lost unless its drivers forge connections with the general public.

"It's absolutely essential," said Zak Brown, whose Indiana-based Just Marketing International specializes in motorsports.

It's a frustrating conundrum for the drivers, who deliver an exciting product on the track and come off as plenty likable when they speak in public.

"I think there are plenty of personalities. We have a very good series, very competitive," Kanaan said. "I think sometimes we point fingers at the wrong problem. I think we find problems where there aren't any. … It's a matter of being out there on TV. When you turn the TV on, you have your product out there every day on a different network. That's how you're going to attract people."

Kanaan is right, said Brown, who earlier this year turned down an offer to become the CEO of IndyCar.

"If you put a microphone in front of Tony, he's a great interview," Brown said. "It's not his job to get the microphone in front of him."

It is the job of Mark Miles, CEO of IndyCar's parent company, Hulman & Co. Miles, formerly the CEO of the ATP men's tennis tour, said the series needs to improve its promotion of drivers. But he believes in the raw material.

"I love our guys," he said. "I think they're almost universally handsome and cut. They're articulate. They can sell themselves. It would've been tough to pick a significant number of men's tennis players and take them to an investment banking conference. Not so with our drivers."

Nonetheless, IndyCar drivers are substantially less famous than NASCAR drivers, said Henry Schafer, a branding consultant whose Q scores are a widely used measure of celebrity appeal. Schafer's April survey found the average IndyCar driver was known to 25 percent of the public compared to 40 percent for the average NASCAR driver.

He said Castroneves is as widely known as many NASCAR counterparts but added that the Brazilian's Q score of 13 is dwarfed by those of top NASCAR drivers, including former IndyCar star Danica Patrick, whose Q score is 23.

"The emotional connection to sports fans is clearly not as strong," Schafer said.

He said today's drivers also rank well behind open-wheel stars of the past. Mario Andretti, who hasn't driven regularly for 20 years, was still known to 74 percent of the people Schafer surveyed, and his Q score of 23 would make him the most appealing star in IndyCar today.

'Harder to stand out'

There's a chicken-and-egg debate to be had. Did IndyCar lose popularity because its drivers lack star power? Or have the drivers failed to become stars because IndyCar was outmaneuvered by NASCAR and other sports leagues in marketing new faces and securing prime television real estate?

"NASCAR did such a fantastic job of building," said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based sports marketing consultant. "And there are so many more sports out there now that are getting attention. It just becomes harder and harder to stand out."

Television is the No. 1 problem, Brown said. With the majority of its races on the little-watched NBC Sports Network, IndyCar simply doesn't receive wide exposure for much of the year. That might change in 2015, when NASCAR will begin a deal with NBC that's expected to bring more racing viewers to the cable network and hopefully boost IndyCar's ratings in the process. baltimoresun.com

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