If Helio's gone, IRL needs team effort

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It seems the Indy Racing League just can't win. After years of failure in capturing a true audience, the unification of open-wheel racing propelled a season of rebirth for the IndyCar Series in which its TV ratings and national profile finally started to grow without the strife of the IRL-Champ Car split. At the forefront of this renaissance was Helio Castroneves, whose "Dancing With The Stars" title in 2007 made him a mainstream icon — something his two Indianapolis 500 wins could not. Add in Danica Patrick and the IRL now had two big stars. Even more importantly, the league now had a chance at a brighter future. But now we may be without the Brazilian superstar. Castroneves was indicted for one count of conspiracy and six counts of tax evasion on Thursday, charges which could lead to a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison. According to court documents, he failed to tell the IRS about $5.5 million in income he accrued over a four-year period. Of course, Castroneves has only been charged with these crimes and is innocent until proven guilty. However, if he is away from the track for a substantial period of time, it raises a very important question for the series: Who becomes its leading face? Logic denotes that Patrick becomes, once again, the league's singular star attraction. She certainly brings in the fans and is a solid contender on the track. But for the IRL to continue on its upward trend, it is going to need a driver with two very important elements: the ability to charm fans and, most importantly, the ability to win on a consistent basis. Patrick has the former. Unfortunately, she hasn't quite gotten the latter -- not yet, anyway. Scott Dixon, the series' new champion, has emphatically shown he's a winning machine with the right resources. But as far as his personality goes, well, he's proud to be a "non-flash" character. If you think you've heard this record before, you have. But with Castroneves' troubles, a critical element of the league's hook with potential audiences may be permanently gone. That's bad news heading into 2009, which in some ways will be the true beginning of the unified era. We also need to keep in mind that the league will lose 23 million homes in cable reach as a result of its decision to cast its lot with a new cable network for the next 10 seasons in return for better coverage. Having a channel that actually cares about your work is fine, but that giant gap is nothing to sneeze at. The association with Versus will force the league to work even harder to sell the series to the public, and not having an effervescent character like Castroneves in the fold would be a major problem to overcome. All is not lost, though. A guilty verdict would be devastating, but the league has a strong nucleus of drivers to fill the void. Granted, it will take more than one of them to step into Castroneves' shoes in terms of presence, but it can be done. Tony Kanaan is set to be the league's stalwart after signing a five-year deal with Andretti Green Racing over the summer. One of American open-wheel racing's best drivers, Dario Franchitti, is stepping back into an IndyCar with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dan Wheldon appears to have put those NASCAR rumors to bed by re-teaming with his old friends at Panther Racing. Fan favorite Vitor Meira also has a new home with another fan favorite in car owner and four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt. And that's just the international contingent. The American nucleus in the series may prove to be even more critical should Castroneves go to the slammer -- especially if they start rattling off victories. In addition to Patrick, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay have the potential to be stars as Rahal's victory at St. Petersburg and RHR's triumph at Watkins Glen this past year can attest. Marco Andretti has been through some trying times over the last few seasons, but he's still a talent and he's got the legendary name to bank on. Oh, and let's not forget about A.J. Foyt IV or former Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice either. Perhaps it's not a matter of who would become the leading face for the series if Castroneves' career does indeed come to a premature end. Perhaps, it's a matter of faces. Perhaps, it will take a "team effort" to keep pushing the league forward and not backward. Whichever way it goes, the league has been put in a tough spot by Castroneves' alleged actions. It can't afford to have just one star lead the way as it continues to move into the post-split era and toward all the complications that may arise in it. This is a nightmare scenario for the Indy Racing League. However, it doesn't have to end their dream of bringing open-wheel racing back to glory.
Tagged: Dario Franchitti, Danica Patrick

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