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INDYCAR BLOG: Time to find the Next Big Thing

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The news that Andretti Autosport had signed 15-year-old Sage Karam to race on the Road to Indy in the Star Mazda Series - the import of which was ably addressed by Pop Off Valve editor-in-chief Tony Johns on this site - got me thinking about something that happened late in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

Remember that painfully uncomfortable Randy Bernard-Danica Patrick interview conducted at Motegi that Versus televised before the season finale at Homestead-Miami? RB did everything but get down on his knees and beg her to come back another year, didn't he? (Ed: And we have no way of knowing if that's not in the outtakes somewhere, do we?)

The last time I remember an exchange between two people that awkward it was me trying to get a date in high school.

Here's what I would say to Mr. Bernard, were he to ask my advice: Instead of begging Ms. Patrick to keep racing in your series, focus on finding IndyCar's Next Big Thing.

Yes, I know it's hard to turn your back on the money-printing machine that is Danica Patrick. Three of five commercials during race broadcasts feature her (Ed: And the other two have Tony Kanaan and/or products from Brazil) and she is the only driver from any racing series who gets invited to appear on late-night talk shows during the off-season.

No question, Ms. Patrick staying in IndyCar is a highly desired outcome for the series, but if she chooses to follow her NASCAR ambitions instead, her loss does not need to be catastrophic.

Emily Dickinson once said: "Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate." (Ed: Um, wow. Emily Dickinson, the poet? Really? I'm guessing that's a first for Pop Off Valve).

There are plenty of great stories in the current IndyCar driver corps, which is arguably the most diverse of any major racing series. Perhaps F1 has more different nationalities represented in the paddock, but there are no women racing for the FIA World Championship.

With the Road to Indy program there are even more good stories to tell - young Mr. Karam is just one - and the chance for fans to identify and follow the progress of the next generation of IndyCar drivers.

Before the 2010 season had even begun, I recall seeing an Izod representative on either Wind Tunnel or the Speed Report. IZOD had signed on to become the title sponsor for IndyCar, and the rep (forgive me, but the name escapes me) said there were great stories to be told about the series and its drivers, and one thing his company planned on doing was to tell those stories.

In and amongst all the good things Izod has done for IndyCar, I'm not sure that happened as much as I thought it would. But, it's fair to say I was a casual follower, so I may have missed it. But doing that, finding the next Danica Patrick or Tony Kanaan or Helio Castroneves, is vital to the continued relevance and - hopefully - growth of IndyCar, both in the grandstands and the paddocks.

* * *

I do some freelance work on the side and two of the young racers I've written about are 15-year-old girls who regularly carve up the competition on kart tracks here in the Pacific Northwest. I've talked to both these girls and their families, and asked them the key question about their future goals in racing: NASCAR or IndyCar?

In both cases the families were overwhelmingly in favor of NASCAR because it was perceived to be safer - Mike Conway's final lap crash at this year's Indianapolis 500 left quite an impression - but ultimately the choice is up to the girls themselves. Although both admired Danica Patrick greatly, it was NASCAR all the way. Neither knew much about any other driver in the IndyCar paddock, although one girl asked me "Isn't there an Andretti racing in Indy?"

To be clear: I'm not suggesting the series go the route of "The Monkees" and manufacture the Next Big Thing in IndyCar. NASCAR went that way, turning its Drive 4 Diversity program into some kind of reality show, complete with manufactured villains. Although the resulting show was entertaining at times, it would have more educational (Ed: and dare I say "realistic") for aspiring racers to see the D4D combines filmed documentary-style with some added narration.

Instead, I would hope IndyCar puts together an aggressive media plan that provides fans the chance to learn more about the other drivers in the paddock, and those who aspire to get there. Some will drop out, some will crash out and some may make it all the way to the top.

No anointing, just some pointing; let the fans pick and choose their own favorites, and IndyCar's Next Big Thing will appear magically. As Emily D. said, there's always another Next Big Thing out there.

Pot, stirred. Over to you.