Although his home race in Toronto didn't go to plan, James Hinchcliffe still had a strong start to the week. On Monday, he did, in fact, make it onto his sponsor GoDaddy's homepage.
It's the latest success in the Canadian's career of excellent branding and marketing to go alongside with his driving ability, now showcased to the world his first two seasons in the IZOD IndyCar Series, first with Newman/Haas Racing and now this year with Andretti Autosport.
In no way is this a bad thing for IndyCar. Considering how easy it is to dwell on the negative, or find a cloud on an otherwise clear day for the series, the notoriety of "Hinch" is a continued positive for a series still struggling to regain mainstream traction and momentum on a regular basis.
It's only when we get to a quote from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard during last Sunday morning's media availability that a caution flag to the potential Hinch marketing momentum comes up.
“We've got James Hinchcliffe here now, and he's an outstanding young guy,” he said. “He's the future of not only Canada, [but] IndyCar. He's the guy we want to build.”
Sorry, but I have to go Kanye right here in interrupting. Yes, the quote was said off the cuff in a media scrum. But the word “THE” rather than the word “A” is very telling.
With Hinchcliffe, IndyCar has a marketable star who's improved by leaps and bounds in his sophomore season, but someone who could be placed – rightly or wrongly – indirectly on the precipice of overexposure.
I now offer a fair word of warning about that word, as all involved need to look no further than Hinch's predecessor in the GoDaddy car for that – Danica Patrick.
From her rookie year in 2005 when she showed promise – primarily on the ovals and particularly at the Indianapolis 500 – the rise of Danica “the brand” grew dramatically, to the point where Danica “the racer” was often overlooked, or scorned because of it. Objectively, Danica as a racer in IndyCar was frequently midpack, occasionally brilliant, and consistently clean in terms of bringing her car to the finish – she ended her career with 50 straight finishes.
Her career grew by leaps and bounds – even though her only win was Motegi 2008 – but nonetheless, IndyCar made, in my view, the critical mistake of hitching all its eggs to Danica's basket. Everywhere you looked, Danica was the star. The one making the most appearances. The one who drew eyeballs. The one who, by her widespread presence, was then made into the most polarizing figure in the series. You love(d) or hate(d) her as a result.
And though I rarely saw it described as such, and though she did well in her media comments to not create any hate (save for when she threw her crew under the bus in qualifying at Indianapolis in 2010), I have to wonder if the pressure the series put on her to perform made it all the more difficult for her to do so.
For a five-year period, IndyCar aided Danica, the brand, as much as the racer, after her initial Indianapolis 500 in 2005 officially put her name on the map. In 2010, when it became apparent her brand had exceeded IndyCar, Patrick went a few months ahead of LeBron James in announcing she would be taking her talents to the beach – Daytona Beach instead of South Beach – on a part-time basis. That marked the beginning of the end and, inevitably, it became official that Patrick would be full-time in NASCAR starting this year.
The Danica as IndyCar's lone marketing centerpiece strategy is one that Danica and her team, in my view, played better than IndyCar did. Knowing full well IndyCar needed a star, Danica performed strongly enough to merit the attention, the coverage and the notoriety, and IndyCar, realizing it hadn't had a “mainstream” star since the split of 1996, was all too excited to hitch its horse to her wagon.
It cannot repeat that mistake.
The 2012 season – the first Danica-less season in IndyCar since 2004 – has also been one of the most parity-filled, and deeply competitive years, since the split. There have been six different winners and 15 different podium finishers. From one-to-26, there's realistically maybe two or three drivers you wouldn't consider “worthy” or “deserving” of a seat this year, and even they've had their occasional, if sporadic, flashes of brilliance.
The ratings this year haven't gone up by much, but they have gone up. The first Danica-less 500 attracted a greater rating than her last one.
And it is at this point that IndyCar needs to be ahead of the negativity, the political BS, owner(s)-versus-CEO drama, engine wars, and realize what it has had all season is a mostly damn good on-track product that could have been promoted ahead of it.
What it needs to do, is ensure the focus and storylines revolve around the fact Dario Franchitti is likely to be dethroned as champion after a reign of three consecutive years. It has veterans Will Power and Scott Dixon, whose dry wit could be perceived and appreciated so much better than it is – and they're damn good racers who would be closer to the points lead this year if it wasn't for surprise pitfalls that have struck them more frequently than others at inopportune moments.
It has, collectively, the best crop of American drivers since the split. Leading the charge is Hinchcliffe's Andretti Autosport teammate, the American three-peat winner in Ryan Hunter-Reay. He has been long overdue for this momentum and finally contending for a title after a career spent bouncing around between opportunities.
Beyond his driving, Hunter-Reay's water sports, deep sea fishing, love of dogs and efforts to raise awareness for cancer research with Racing For Cancer are all great storylines that can be fleshed out. Now he has the stability and results to go with his off-track interests and initiatives.
It still has the “names” of Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti – it has two Indy Lights champions in JR Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden. Collectively those four have unfulfilled potential that could take them to the next level. Charlie Kimball is now finding his footing beyond just being known as “the driver with diabetes” and Ed Carpenter's rise as an owner/driver is a noble one in modern racing – along with former drivers Eddie Cheever and Bobby Rahal, Carpenter's a rare breed.
There's the Brazilian lifers – Helio and TK, and now TK and Rubens – and the underrated vets Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani who are due so much more than just one career win for either of them. The two Frenchmen in the series, Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais, are both crazy talented and unafraid of holding back their true opinions. Where's Perrier to sponsor Pagenaud, considering he's done a Jean Girard imitation? Justin Wilson is one of the best drivers in the series, yet is virtually invisible outside the realm of the series boundaries.
Lastly, there's Hinch. Hinch has been a self-made marketing genius going back to his initial season of Formula Atlantic in 2006 – “Hinchtown” as a brand was something James and a select few others did on their own, and only now, after more than a half decade of work to get this far, it's being refined thanks to the support of one of this series' few major paying sponsors.
One of the biggest roles of a sanctioning body is promoting the right stories and personalities of its product, across the proper channels. While a strategy involving Hinch is great – and can be great, for the series going forward – it can't be the only strategy, as Bernard intimates.
One video promo that IndyCar did very well this year was when the rookie class of 2011 – Hinchcliffe, Hildebrand and Kimball – all poked fun at each other in explaining who they were. And Newgarden's “Incognito” series has been brilliant – if disappointing – because it speaks to the greater problem that the guy who won the championship of Triple-A is far from a household name. That, more than anything, is one of the biggest issues why this hard-working, mature rookie and his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team have run blank sidepods most of this season (SEE VIDEOS BELOW).
With the veterans on the downsides of their careers, IndyCar is well-positioned from a future talent standpoint – not just in its current ladder series graduates, but also with some of its Mazda Road to Indy drivers (Connor De Phillippi, Jack Hawksworth, Spencer Pigot, Tristan Vautier and others come to mind) – to create a new swath of promoting the personalities in this series.
IndyCar has way more than just one driver to showcase going forward, and it needs to ensure it does just that. I just hope the “Mayor of Hinchtown” doesn't revoke my citizenship for suggesting he not be the only focus.
"Inside IndyCar with James Hinchcliffe" - introducing James Hinchcliffe, JR Hildebrand, and Charlie Kimball.
"Newgarden Incognito" - Josef Newgarden at Long Beach.
"Newgarden Incognito 2" - Josef Newgarden at Texas.