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Time for IndyCar Series to prove it can market drivers

April 25, 2013
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Help is on the way. That’s an old and tired refrain in sports, but it just might be true this May for the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500.

Speedway and IndyCar Series officials appear to have two drivers—both fresh faces—to hype next month. Whether those two are the saviors of IndyCar is up for debate, but series officials need to at least try to use them to bolster the open-wheel series.

First is Takuma Sato, who won the Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday. No, Sato hasn’t been on ESPN nor any other prime time national show all that much since becoming the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race. But he is getting lots of attention in his native land, and he provides series officials an opportunity to raise the IndyCar profile overseas.

NHK, Japan’s most-watched TV network, devoted a long segment early in its national news broadcast Monday to Sato, who drives for racing legend A.J. Foyt.

Sato was the main story on Yahoo Japan Monday and on the front page of all the major Tokyo newspapers (a first for IndyCar racing since Danica Patrick won at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008). “Likes” and Facebook comments on the main Indycar.com story shot up tenfold after Sato’s victory, series officials said.

Japanese exclamations of “long life!” and “hurrah!” arose.

“We all did banzai when Taku received checker flag,” said Japan’s GAORA Sports TV director, Keiichi Inamine, whose network broadcast the race live early in the morning. “We took photo with all members in our studio.”

Sato said he has been inundated with media requests from Japan since his victory. Sato’s association with four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Foyt is gaining traction here in the United States as well.

Foyt, despite recent back surgery, has to be smiling pretty broadly. The biggest state-side story this May could be American upstart Conor Daly, who was hired by Foyt last month to race at Indianapolis.

It will be Daly’s first Indy 500, but the son of former racer and WISH-TV Channel 8 race analyst Derek Daly has been racing almost since he could walk and has won at every level at which he’s competed. Racing fans know Daly well and there’s much intrigue to see if the Indianapolis native can work his magic at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Daly is being honored today at Heritage Christian High School, where he graduated in 2010. He’s likely to get much support from this market, and if he’s able to do what many think he can behind the wheel of an IndyCar, he could catch the attention of a larger audience of more casual race fans that flock to Indianapolis each year.

Which is good news for the series. Daly is an ideal ambassador. He’s the perfect mix of professionalism, wit and charm. While he has expressed a desire to race in Formula One, and has shown glimpses of the skill it would take him to get there, he’s also said he’ll consider a career in IndyCar.

Driver promotion and marketing hasn’t exactly been a strong suit of the series since it was founded in 1996. With the likes of Patrick, Sam Hornish and a handful of others, series officials have certainly had their opportunities.

New Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles has promised to do for IndyCar what he did for tennis players as CEO for the ATP Tour. This May is a first glimpse for race fans to see if Miles is ready to make good or simply flame out.

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