IndyCar has chance to showcase new stars

By Jenna Fryer

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this June 11, 2011 file photo, IndyCar driver Danica Patrick waves to fans during the introductions for the Texas Firestone Twin 275 auto races at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. For better or for worse, Patrick was the face of IndyCar the last seven years.

Sharon Ellman, Associated Press

For better or for worse, Danica Patrick was the face of IndyCar the last seven years.

The series' star despite limited results, Patrick caught the eye of the causal sports fan — often to the detriment of the other drivers. Now that she has moved on to NASCAR, IndyCar has a wide-open opportunity to fill the void she left behind.

As the series prepares for Sunday's season opener in St. Petersburg, the spotlight is finally shifting.

"You need 10 Danicas, not just one person who holds the series up, but 10 people who are very popular," said Penske Racing driver Will Power. "There's some pretty interesting personalities in the series."

Power, for now, is probably best known for his infamous obscene gesture toward series officials that was caught during the live broadcast of last season's race at New Hampshire. But the Australian should be lauded for his 13 victories — 11 in the last two seasons — and his intense rivalry with four-time series champion Dario Franchitti.

He's twice lost the title to Franchitti, and his intense desire to beat his rival emerged last season on and off the track. Power accused Franchitti of being a dirty driver, called him "Princess" on Twitter and proved to have the fire that, if Power were driving in the more popular NASCAR series, would have made him an overnight superstar.

"He had a few meltdowns last year," laughed Franchitti. "I haven't consciously tried to wind Will up; I think you saw his passion last year. I think you really saw how much it means to him."

Power, with a sharp sense of humor, is ready for some increased attention.

"I think anyone would like that role." He said. "That means success, right? Or does it?"

Results weren't part of it for Patrick, who had one victory and seven podiums in 115 career starts. But she had unbelievable marketing support from sponsor GoDaddy.com, which spent the money necessary to make her a star.

The sponsorship now goes to James Hinchcliffe, who replaces Patrick in the Andretti Autosport ride. Last year's rookie of the year seized his new job with a series of witty one-liners, referring to himself as "Manica," joking "I've got big heels to fill," and submitting a photo of himself with Patrick's hair for his IndyCar credential.

The 25-year-old Canadian has been preparing for this opportunity for some time. He's got a marketing savvy that belies his age and experience, and works nonstop at showcasing his personality.

Hinchcliffe designed his personal web site as if it were a community called Hinchtown. And he's, of course, the mayor. Visitors to the site can register to become a resident or click on the "cinema" section to view one of his many self-deprecating videos.

A video released last month shows Hinchcliffe at his home computer relentlessly pursuing the GoDaddy ride. He does impersonations of fellow drivers Franchitti and Helio Castroneves and harasses Patrick with voice mail messages until he's notified she's taken out a restraining order.

It's clear that as Hinchcliffe heads into his first full season of IndyCar, he's eager to take on some of Patrick's fame.

"I don't think we need to replace Danica. I think what is important is to let fans know that there is more than just one face of this sport," he said. "There are a lot of cool characters in this series. ... I think the pressure is on us to let those people get out there a bit more and let the fans know that there is more people to cheer for than just Danica.

"I think she did great things for our sport and brought a lot of attention at a very good time for us. But, I think going forward it is important that we branch out and let people know that it is more than just one driver."

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