Turning Darios into Marios no easy feat for IndyCar Series

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The IndyCar Series and Infineon Raceway trotted out the old open-wheel guard this weekend in California. Attempting to lure back some long-time fans, Infineon rolled out a Legends Package, featuring the opportunity to meet Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser Jr. and Mario Andretti.

A smart move? Perhaps. Who can argue with staying connected to a sport’s roots.

Or is it a desperate play to put butts in seats? A sign that IndyCar's current product lacks personalities to sell? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Either way, the IndyCar Series has a serious problem.

A line in today’s Sacramento Bee hit it right on the head, stating “More people know Mario than Dario.” The notion that 70-year-old Mario Andretti is still one of the biggest names in open-wheel underscores the problem. And the fact that Mario’s name resonates more than a guy who’s been in more than a couple of the series’ more recent winner’s circles is scarier yet.

The Bee went on to say more people know Dario Franchitti for his wife, Ashley Judd, than anything he’s achieved on the track. That line has to make series CEO Randy Bernard just a little queasy.

Bernard has to find a way to make Darios into Marios.

“People come out to see household names,” Penske Racing’s Tim Cindric told a group of reporters at Sunday’s race.

Despite what series officials say about climbing TV ratings, not enough people are coming out to see.

With Danica Patrick’s star dimming at least a little, the IndyCar Series has one less thing to market. I’m not convinced that Versus is doing enough to pump up the volume of the series or its drivers, and I don’t think Bernard is convinced of that either. He’s meeting with Versus executives this week in Chicago to address that very issue.

And what about Izod? They’re pumping a solid amount of money into the series, but its ad campaign needs an overhaul. I’m not sure making series drivers look like they’re living the lifestyles of the rich and famous (flying helicopters, zipping around on a jet sky in a tropical paradise, racing a motorcycle around Gilligan’s Island, etc.) is the right way to connect with the masses.

Personally, I think the commercials of Tony Stewart making hamburgers and worrying about grill fires at Burger King are a more effective way to connect with a broad audience.

The ratings (TV broadcast viewership) for IndyCar are going up, and series officials love to wave that flag. But what does a 24 percent increase mean for the open-wheel series? A national rating of 0.36, or about 402,000 viewers per race.

Not enough, Cindric said, to draw big-time sponsors for the series or teams. And Cindric should know. Penske, despite its winning ways, it sitting with two unsponsored cars.

Infineon Raceway officials estimated attendance at Sunday’s race at 40,000, the same as last year.

“In this economy, level is the new up,” said Infineon Raceway President Steve Page.

I guess the series can lean on that kind of logic for now. But it won’t prop them up for long.

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