BIRMINGHAM, AL - MARCH 14: JR Hildebrand, driver of the #4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara Honda in the pits during IZOD IndyCar Series Spring Training at Barber Motorsports Park on March 14, 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
A throwaway line at the end of Robin Miller's latest arti-blog-ticle over at SPEED is a familiar refrain from the Man Too Ornery To Be Tamed:
(Graham) Rahal, who captured his initial start in the unified series in 2008, is now aligned with Ganassi in a satellite team after a year of bouncing around the paddock and (Marco) Andretti is in his sixth season with his dad's team.
If INDYCAR is ever getting back to the mainstream, these two need to start winning.
For longtime fans of INDYCAR and its cornucopia of various iterations since Tony Hulman still walked the earth, this may make sense. It doesn't to me, however... and I'll tell you why.
It's not that I have anything against either young Rahal or young Andretti. I just wonder how ingrained their last names are in the American psyche, and whether there is enough cachet left to spark a renaissance in ratings and attendance if they were to suddenly become top stars in the series.
I hate to keep harping on it, but 15 years is a long time. That's how long the interval was between now and the time when the names Rahal and Andretti were still customarily on the lips of Yankee motorheads as the crème de la crème of the racing world. Fifteen years is almost enough time for a human being to go from the sperm-and-egg stage to owning a driver license.
In that time frame, American pop culture has largely forgotten names which once echoed of racing royalty. The fans still remember and revere, but the mainstream does not.
If Graham Rahal or Marco Andretti were to become bona fide stars in INDYCAR, then they would certainly gain attention for the sanction. But no more than, say, J.R. Hildebrand - a fiery young American from the West Coast with a quick wit, a made-for-TV personality, and a lead foot. Or what about James Hinchcliffe? He may not be The Thrill from West Hill, but he's got the moxie and screen presence to make folks stand up and say, "Oh Canada!" if he makes it big. And what about drivers like Charlie Kimball, who is outracing diabetes to pursue the checkered flag, or Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has more screen time on American television thanks to IZOD's ad campaign than virtually any other INDYCAR driver outside of Will "Stay Out Of This, Mustache" Power?
The thing is, the cult of personality has changed in America since the days of yore when Mario and Michael battled Bobby. Americans are far less fixated on names as they are on things and events and happenings. The names that make the news usually do so for some viral embarrassment (viz., Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Tiger Woods) rather than achievement or family legacy. How a successful person presents himself on the TV or in social media counts for far more than his pedigree chart.
So in the end it is not a slam dunk that INDYCAR will rebound into the mainstream if Graham or Marco become the studs du jour. Nor is it a given that INDYCAR cannot become a widespread phenomenon if someone else started lighting up the podium.
What people need to realize is that INDYCAR will move a lot faster and higher if they hitch their wagon to more than just one or two stars.