IndyCar getting one thing it needs even more than American stars

April 22, 2013
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He’s not as American as apple pie, but Takuma Sato adds something to the IndyCar Series it has been sorely lacking in recent years: intrigue.

Let’s face it, in the last five years, there have been only a handful of drivers with a chance to wheel into victory lane.

This year, we’ve seen the first Japanese driver—Sato—win an IndyCar race and Canadian James Hinchcliffe win his first IndyCar event at the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Nothing against the likes of Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, but it’s nice to see a little more variety in the winner’s circle.

The change of pace in IndyCar is raising a few eyebrows—in a good way—and awakening a few people just in time for the month of May.

There’s been a lot of clamoring for more American IndyCar drivers in recent years. But more than anything, this series needs to be shaken and stirred at the top. Yes, the racing has been close in recent years, but it’s really only been contested by a few predictable names.

Guys like Sato and Hinchcliffe never seemed to have much of a chance. Then last May, Sato almost pulled off an unthinkable victory at Indianapolis before crashing out trying to pass Franchitti on the last lap. And Ed Carpenter won the 2012 season finale at Fontana. Small teams and up-and-coming drivers began to have hope.

Still, drivers from Penske Racing, Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport won 13 of 15 races last year. The first four races were won by Team Penske—three by Will Power and one by Castroneves. The next two were won by Ganassi.

I have nothing against these drivers and teams, but the series had become predictable. No one needed to tune into the post-race press conferences. We’d heard it all before.

In the first three races this year, two teams have already tasted victory, and Penske and Ganassi have been shut out. Castroneves, a Penske driver, leads the overall series, but Sato is sitting second and other new names are either in the top 10 or inching closer.

While it’s true that Hinchcliffe drives for Andretti, he’s certainly a fresh face. And as a replacement for Danica Patrick in the GoDaddy car, he has a compelling story behind him.

No one is more intriguing than Sato, who drives for 78-year-old racing legend A.J. Foyt. This team is dripping with intrigue and new story lines. It’s Foyt’s first IndyCar victory in 10 years, and in the coming days and weeks, I expect to see stories about how Foyt got over the hump and the role played by Foyt’s son, Larry, in revitalizing the team.

Sato’s victory comes at a great time for the series. With just over a month until the Indianapolis 500, there are bound to be stories about Sato’s near miss at Indy last year and his desire to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing this year. Can he finally get A.J. Foyt back to Indy’s victory lane? Several stories have already cropped up about the odd couple that is Foyt and Sato, and how they’ve built a winning relationship. I expect more to come.

Foyt also has another intriguing story in Conor Daly, the young and promising American who is chasing a career in Formula One but making room for a rookie debut in Indianapolis this year.

The victories by Sato and Hinchcliffe must have the upstarts, no-names and dreamers thinking maybe—just maybe—they, too, can topple the big boys. Who knows? Maybe this year at Indianapolis—on the greatest stage of all—one of them will.

And if they can pull off what just a year ago was almost unthinkable, perhaps the world, or at least a little bigger part of it, will take notice.

  • Sato Fever - Catch It!
    And die. Like the Series. If a Japanese driver winning an Indy Car race is all that is left to rejevenate and make the series something other than all but non-existent right now, which it is, then surely it really underscores the horrible decline and shape this pathetic. old junker is in. Takuma Sato is going to cause a stir and make people watch? Please. The IndyCar Series of 2013 is like CART/CHAMP CAR/OWRS or whatever they called themselves in 2003. Dying and irrelevant. I was at the Long Beach Grand Prix yesterday. I have been to all but three of them since 1984. This one was, by far, the one with the least atmosphere and intrigue ever. EVER. Sato waving a Japanese flag around in an old Navy town, didn't help. And only old-timers know or care about AJ Foyt anyhow. What a nightmare.
    • Changing of the guard
      Sounds like the young lions are getting ready to take over. Too bad the series limped along on CART refugees for so long as Indy hasn't made a hiro since 1996 with the exception of Dancing with the Stars champion and IRS target Twinkletoes. If the car wasn't so ugly, perhaps more stars would emerge. The Unser/RaHAL/Andretti 2nd generations are a bust. But, if a 36 yr old is changing of the guard by winning...good lord, they are in trouble. I think Sato just got the good engine draw, that's it. Spec cars with spec can just know whos in charge of competition in this hoooey series.
    • And how bad is it?
      When I got back to my hotel room Sunday night, there was ZERO, NADA, NYET, coverage of the Long Beach Grand Prix on TWO of the Los Angeles TV stations, both with Sunday Sports recap shows. Nada. Not a mention. ON one of LA's big sports radio stations this morning there was a one sentence mention, about the fifth or sixth story read. It went something like, and I paraphrase, "And yesterday was the big Long Beach Grand Prix, Japanese driver Takuma Sato wins in a car owned by legendary AJ Foyt. Graham Rahal was second." That was it. That was all. That was the end. And it is The End.
    • Stop complaining
      This race season has been fantastic and really positive. BURL, you need to relax and stop complaining. Follow another sport. The time to bitch and moan is past. There is real racing going on here. Too bad ESPN and the National media do not see it. We are lucky the IBJ covers open wheel racing because of the Indy 500, or this story would not have been published. Good work IBJ. I cannot wait for the next race in Brazil, followed by the Indy 500.
    • Chris Hutson's Points
      Right on he is. The racing has been great. But where is the beef? This morning I could find no coverage of the race on my local TV, nothing on ESPN, and only a two paragraph article in the local paper. No results in the the results section where they list the finishing order. None for IndyCar, that is. There was one for the NASCAR race. It is sad, what had become of this sport. Hutson is right about the racing. It is good. But so few are watching, it is if the sport does nto exist.
    • When Yao Ming put on a Houston Rockets uniform, the NBA trumpeted this as a chance to get into the massive Asian market. When Tiger Woods won his first major, the PGA said this showed diversity. Most of those sports are still waiting to get a woman who can compete against a man on a level playing surface. Indycar has been breaking barriers long before any of the above. First Black in a major US racing league, first woman, first succesful woman and now first Asian to win a US race. So I find it interesting that Chief, Burl and company, do not see the Sato win for what it is. A great opportunity to market to the Asian community, both here and abroad. They may have missed that Japanese companies have long been major sponsors of Indycar and that US companies are trying anyway possible to break into the Asian market. Satos win has the potential to open of new markets for fans and sponsors. Hopefully it is exploited properly. I did find it intersting that NASCAR is having real issues drawing fans. Every race this year has had many empty seats. I went to see what their attendance has been and found out NASCAR is no longer providing attendance figures. And most tracks are cutting their seating, so considerably so. Atlanta 99k down from 124k Fontana 84k, down from 95k Charlotte 146k down from 156k Chicago 69k down from 73k Daytona 147k down from 159k Kansas 72k down from 80k Martisnville, 55k down from 63k Michigan 84k down from 108k Talladega 108k down from 143k and on and on. Of course some of the tracks say they are reducing capacity, not because of lower attendance, but because of wanting a better fan experience. I am not buying that one. One of the only tracks not shown to be reducing seating is Indy. Interesting.
    • Give Americans a chance....
      That was the cry from the cheap seats at Indy, circa 1994. Tony George started the IRL to preserve oval racing and to allow Americans a chance to live their dream...race in the Indy 500. Just like AJ Foyt did. So, yes I see Sato's win EXACTLY for what it is...the hypocrisy of the IRL's existence and the fact that it took several hunedred MILLIONS of dollars to arrive at a point of less. Less popularity, less money in the sport, less horsepower, less speed, less sexiness in the sport, more Japanese ride buyers for Foyt racing seeing as the Brazillian $$$$ dried up after dozens of years on it. Hypocrisy, look it up. Indy and Foyt racing is that. And in fact, so is the sport. 20 years essentially wasted for a pipe-dream so we can fleece the local/state governments for a hundedred million to pay for our mistakes. A coffee bar/warehouse built for no one to enjoy. A goofy car. You know Indyman, you'd think the idea Japanese ride-buying just was hatched by the IMS braintrust the way you put it....37 yr old Japanese drivers are the wave of the future. Too bad the series don't race in Japan any more....FWIW, Sato hadn't won in like 10+ years...and he's 37 years old. Hang your hat on that fella.
    • Just ask yourself this...
      ...we are two days removed now from Takuma Sato's big win at the Long Beach Grand Prix. First Japanese driver to accomplish this. Supposed big story. Well, where is all the buzz? Where is the big talk? The headlines? The appearances on Sportscenter, maybe a three or four minute snippet and interview on Good Morning America? A column about it in a major paper? NO. Nada. Nyet. Why? Because NOBODY cares! It is a non-story for a non-series. Twenty years ago this would have been news. This would have gotten IndyCar racing a little national pub. Today it is a non-story because NOBODY cares. And people in the sport knwo full well, Sato got THE ENGINE, for Honda's twentieth. All he had to do was be good enough to steer around the big go-carts until it was over. It isn't racing. It isn't anything but bad.
    • Long Beach TV Rating FALL
      Wow, TV ratings FALL for Long Beach. As a measure of popularity Indycar is not doing it with TV fans. The car is ugly and fans can't stand looking at them. Sato-mania cant get no traction. Zak Brown would need to be a hypnotist to convince fans to want to watch that bumpercar series.
    • Long Beach From The Standpoint of an Actual Fan
      FYI: I had a great time at the LBGP. Got here early Sunday morning and found my way down there. Lots of people, great atmosphere and as an actual racing fan I was glad to see the Foyt team put that one together. Because I am not blind, deaf or willfully stupid I saw lots of coverage on the local channels and even some national sports broadcasts. Despite the obsessed teeth gnashing being predictably trotted out by the usual suspects the actual racing fans evidently had a good time. I know I did. I'm actually here all week working, and many of my clients either went or have talked about it with me. No Brazil for me but May is just around the corner!
    • Wrong
      Disciple saw very little coverage locally. I was there a week before and one day after. The local paper had coverage, thank goodness for small favors. Otherwise, Long Beach barely registered a blip. And two of the Sunday evening Sunday sports recaps did nto even mention the race. Unheard of, in the CART-era. Keep trying Dispciable. This one won't count.
    • Chief, The atmosphere is more conducive for American drivers than at any time under cart. The days of passing over a talent like Jeff Gordon because he did not bring money is long gone. Many good American drivers are getting a chance. There is still much more work that needs to be done to get more in, but it is much better than it was. As far as the rest of your rant, the parts that made any sense are few and far between. Basically it distills that you don't think the cars are sexy, and you still haven't got your personal apology. So have you figured out who the race directors are and why they get the pace car replicas?
    • Funny
      Hmmm...oddly I saw coverage after the event on two of the four network affiliate early news and two others on the late casts. Without even really looking or keeping score. But thanks for attempting to think on my behalf.LOL. I don't care what the obsessed believed they saw 20 years ago. I'm located in 2013 (and 90210).
    • Scoreboard
      This sport is headed into the crapper. Since 2008, TV ratings have precipitously fallen. Indy 500 may struggle to match NASCAR Martinsville rating numbers. Long Beach....way lower than 2012! Cars uglier than roadkill. CART, twice dead is still more popular than the current IRL series. 6 cylinder engines, no grunt, cars that look so rigid yet with wings that smash apart upon the least contact...who is Tristran Vaultier? Is HE American?
    • The Approach of May Causes Whacko Behavior in Critics
      Hmmm. Odd. cart did actually die. Twice. How long will it be until IndyCar is no longer headed into the crapper and actually lands there? The same handful of you have been screeching this same nonsense for no apparent reason for over 17 years and with each passing year all of you look even more foolish. You must be so proud. Looks like you've even forgotten about Taku already, which was the topic of the blog.
    • Really?
      I don't know which LBGP you were at, but it must not have been the one I was at last weekend. Of course, I didn't rush back to my room to click breathlessly through the local news since I already knew what happened. Besides, with all of the other LA-area major league sports teams in action on Sunday, what were you expecting? I've been to all three ICS races this season and what heartens me is the number of families and kids at the events, as well as the numbers in the paddock and at the fan events. As for the cars, they are what they are but you can't dispute the quality of the on-track product. I'd like to see another manufacturer come on board (and not the horrendous Delta Wing), but my fear is that aero kits will make them look like those incredibly ugly F-1 cars. And until we can get rid of ABC (which is the Speedway's fault) and get more races on NBC prime, we likely won't see much movement on the ratings side. This is an interesting postscript to the TGPLB:
    • Good to see Chief is back on the doom and gloom bus for Indycar. It wasn't the same with him denying that he had said Indycar was dying. Sponsors don't seem to have an issue with Indycar. Large companies putting their money where there mouths are. But until Chief gets his personal apology, he will continue to think the cars are not sexy. I wonder if he thinks his tractor is sexy? So Chief, figure out the race directors pace car issue yet?
    • Long Beach Grand Prix
      I attend the race with my husband every year. It is a "west coast" vacation tradition for us and the only race we attend beside Indy. I must say, the pro-IndyCar Series fans sure do defend the thing, but we were very disappointed in the overall experience. This race is light years away from what it was. Twenty years ago it was an EVENT. My husband remarked that the people we sat around kept asking who the guy in the ABC car was. And there were two guys who thought Rahal was "Bobby Rahal." I am not sure what has happened. Things are different for certain. I don't think what we saw out there were Indy Car fans. They were just people out for a good time and not many of them. There was even a fan in the pits area we heard asking which car "Danica drives."
      • LBGP
        like Indy is a shadow of its former self. Without the ALMS and celebrity race on Saturday, the weekend would be a disaster. Sunday's crowds have done nothing but disappear and the removal of grandstands and the overhead helicopter shots only prove this. The crowd was virtually non existent on Sunday. The 1 or 2 times they did use an overhead shot i couldn't believe how empty the stands were. There were only a few at the fences as well. My first LBGP many many years ago it was 3-4 deep at the fences the entire length of Shoreline Drive. It is sad to see what the awful HG-IMS irl has done to a once good event. Sato's win has had little effect and no one is talking about it here in LA.
        • Good crowd from where I sat
          I was in the pits for pre-race and sat in Turn 10 for the race. People were 3-4 deep in front of us against the fence until about halfway through the race. Road/street races are built for people to walk around during the race - there's way too much going on, and there are plenty of videoboards to keep up on the action. As for the crowd, the promoters say it was up from last year - I guess they would know...
        • Save Us: Fill in the blank
          The Assistant Managing Editor at SportsBusiness Daily, Austin Karp, tweeted: ‏@AustinKarp 2h IndyCar Long Beach GP on NBCSN on Sunday gets 375K viewers, down 20% from '12. ------------ And that's AFTER the huge bump from that hip young guy who replaced danica won the opener. And, after news broke that Audi was considering competing in 2 series in the USA. Possibly even in the .1rl. Yes, even with huge hype like that, all the league that killed AOWR can manage a drop in viewers. Now, it's Taku's turn to save the .1rl from the H/G clan's inept ownership. Nobody knows how he'll do it, but if they believe, REALLY BELIEVE, then he just may do it!!!-----------------------------Or NOT!
        • PA was useless
          I'm sure it didn't help those around you that the PA announcer was useless. Don't know why they don't follow the other non-IMS venues and stream the IMS Radio broadcast over the PA.
        • Explain the 20% DROP in TV Ratings?
          You resident IRL/Indycar paid shills and yes-men...listen up....WHY are the Indycarz TV ratings DROPPING? Long Beach 20% DROP, Barber drops 40%. Indycar is missing something and it has nothing to do with diversity of it's winners. I know what is any of you? Mark Miles and Zak Brown...the solution is so easy yet you geniuses can't figure it out! New CEOs can come and go BUT the IRL remains the same. When are you guys gonna figure it out? ALSO, crowds at long Beach have ebb and flowed for years. Do understand that the presence of the IRL there has nothing to do with it...well, the decline of attendance over the years yes. but increasing way.
        • And Now A View From Someone On Earth
          What is there to figure out? Here are a few snippets normal folk who have the ability to use their brains understand: 1) The acronym 'IRL' has not been used in many years except by children. 2) 12+ overnight audience estimates for most sports and entertainment offerings are shrinking. The current year is 2013 and fragmentation in terms of number of offerings and means of delivery is much higher than it was even five years ago. Successful venues will take their messages far beyond television. 3) Those of us actually in attendance at Long Beach who are real racing fans had a great time. Perhaps if hypocrites who say they don't watch but obsess 24/7 would actually put their money where their mouths are the sport could cultivate new fans not jaded by some utopian fantasy world. The Taku/Foyt story is potentially great and a great way to work toward May.
        • No Fixes, none of my money
          I used to spend thousands on AOW each year. Not anymore because of the moronic ICONIC decisions the leadership at IMS has put the fans through. IMS had the chance to improve the sport with the new car, instead they chose kickback $$$ to Dallara and no we have a slow visually un-appealing car with identical bodykits that the series can't market because of the sophistication of it's intended fanbase. These DW12 "clown cars" make the racing dumb when compared to anything else. And, relying on social media to market the series only adds to the problems. IMS spend nothing on promoting the sport...just B2B arrangements with their major manufacturers. Haven't seen an Indycar commercial from IZOD since "race to the show" several years ago. WHY? Because the dream of using the series as a marketing platform fell straight on it's face. 300% ROI were the cries from IZOD after the first year....nada, zip, ziltch since then. How come? One can only conclude that the series is not that base with which to market their products (or associate with), only to the lengths that the contracts will allow. So, instead of getting out, IZOD is fullfilling their obligations. Minimally as expected based on 40% drops in TV ratings. Fix it Zak...make it all better!
        • A Maturity Refresher Course
          When will your boycott of all things IMS begin to include adult behavior such as boycotting inane commentary about it all day every day?
        • LOL
          Maybe when the TV ratings get above 0.18. The Boyz aren't even in Brazil yet and the death rattle is loud in late April. Mainstream AOW media now reporting limited 505/Indycarz sponsorship $$$ available due to hideous TV ratings. I guess 0.18 never sold a sponsorship after all, right Deflector?

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        1. I never thought I'd see the day when a Republican Mayor would lead the charge in attempting to raise every tax we have to pay. Now it's income taxes and property taxes that Ballard wants to increase. And to pay for a pre-K program? Many studies have shown that pre-K offer no long-term educational benefits whatsoever. And Ballard is pitching it as a way of fighting crime? Who is he kidding? It's about government provided day care. It's a shame that we elected a Republican who has turned out to be a huge big spending, big taxing, big borrowing liberal Democrat.

        2. Why do we blame the unions? They did not create the 11 different school districts that are the root of the problem.

        3. I was just watching an AOW race from cleveland in addition to the 65K for the race, there were more people in boats watching that race from the lake than were IndyCar fans watching the 2014 IndyCar season finale in the Fontana grandstands. Just sayin...That's some resurgence modern IndyCar has going. Almost profitable, nobody in the grandstands and TV ratings dropping 61% at some tracks in the series. Business model..."CRAZY" as said by a NASCAR track general manager. Yup, this thing is purring like a cat! Sponsors...send them your cash, pronto!!! LOL, not a chance.

        4. I'm sure Indiana is paradise for the wealthy and affluent, but what about the rest of us? Over the last 40 years, conservatives and the business elite have run this country (and state)into the ground. The pendulum will swing back as more moderate voters get tired of Reaganomics and regressive social policies. Add to that the wave of minority voters coming up in the next 10 to 15 years and things will get better. unfortunately we have to suffer through 10 more years of gerrymandered districts and dispropionate representation.

        5. Funny people telling poor people how bad the other rich people are wanting to cut benefits/school etc and that they should vote for those rich people that just did it. Just saying..............