Simon Pagenaud’s stellar start to the 2016 IndyCar season has answered many who criticized his signing by Team Penske. Early favourite for a maiden championship and Indy 500 it all seems rosy except for one problem: a 500 win and/or championship title for Pagenaud is a marketing nightmare for IndyCar.
Pagenaud: IndyCar’s next champion?
Undoubtedly Pagenaud is a talented driver – Roger Penske does not sign duds. He is a very personable guy, a fierce racer and kept his cool remarkably last season when he was being kicked in to the long grass by his illustrious team-mates.
Putting the cynical marketing hat on for a few moments however, there is a potentially big problem. American sports fans do not particularly like international interlopers. Those from the Americas stand a chance – consider Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Greg Moore, Montoya, Goodyear, Castroneves, Gil de Ferran. But even they cannot compare to the Unsers, Foyt, Andretti, Mears, Rutherford and Rahal. So a championship for Pagenaud or an Indy 500 win makes things tough for the series to promote – especially when getting IndyCar back on the radar of the mainstream American media is so important.
After the race comes the promotion
Staunch supporters in the mainstream media are few and far between so attempts to peddle Pagenaud around will be tough. Should he win the 100th Indy 500, in comparison to a Rahal, Andretti or Hunter-Reay victory, there will still be coverage and interest, just not enough. This is not just about Pagenaud and certainly not his French nationality. As a symptom of IndyCar’s wider public awareness ‘illness’ he is not well known. Having not come up through the single-seater ranks in the USA does not help. The same would apply for a Bourdais, Power or Sato victory. Consider the lack of coverage Power received when he won his maiden championship as a case in point. His championship could not have been classed as anything more significant than an ‘…and finally…’ piece.
Long-term, big picture
IndyCar is at a critical point in its recovery. The series management seem to be getting their act together (Boston aside). They appear to have got the message about number of races and length of season. There is the makings of some date equity with a bit of stability in the schedule and TV viewing figures had been going in the right direction. For the longer-term health of the series, a continuation of Pagenaud’s epic form will make things very difficult.
100th Indy 500 winner should be the best driver/team combination but…
And that is a hard thing to write because the sport should be (and ultimately is) about the best driver, team and crew combination winning out. If that is Pagenaud then so be it but for now, the series management will be keeping their fingers crossed a driver from the Americas at least, takes home the 100th Indy 500 and/or the championship cup.