IndyCar not looking for next Danica

There were still a few pint-sized fans decked out in “vintage” Danica Patrick dayglo-green gear, but the usual, massive and vocal concentration of supporters behind the pit was noticeably gone during this past weekend’s IZOD IndyCar Series season-opener in St. Petersburg.

Still, vendors insisted Patrick’s old IndyCar merchandise was outselling anyone else despite her recent “defection” to NASCAR.

“They’re collector’s editions now,’’ the manager of one large souvenir trailer on the midway said with a grin. “But, Marco (Andretti) is starting to pick up and Dario (Franchitti) and Helio (Castroneves).’’

James Hinchcliffe, the young Canadian who succeeded the late Dan Wheldon’s planned replacement of Patrick in the Andretti Autosport Go.Daddy car, joked that he would not be wearing a bikini in the company’s notoriously racy advertisements.

He did, however, wear a long black wig when he was introduced before the race, referring to himself as “Man-ica.”

“For me, here at the first race, there’s been a lot of ‘Hey Danica,’ but it’s all in good fun,’’ Hinchcliffe said. “I certainly appreciate that I’m stepping into a pretty visible ride from a woman that did a lot for our sport and was a very public figure.”

That’s about as generous as it gets from most of the IndyCar drivers, who visibly bristle when asked about “life after Danica.” After all, they spent the better half of the last decade being asked over and over again about life with her. Now it’s their time to take the vacated spotlight.

“I don’t think there really is a replacement, or that we have to replace her,’’ said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who also drives for Andretti. “With the new car coming up and the engine competition and the talent in the series, the greatest part, I think, about our current situation is that we have probably the most road-racing talent in the world in one spot.

“IndyCar gives you a platform where even if you are not in a Penske or Ganassi car or an Andretti car you have a shot at winning, where that is not the case in Formula 1 and it’s not the case in NASCAR. I think in our situation it’s the toughest, tightest competition in the world.’’

And by the time the popular three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves took the checkered flag Sunday and scaled the grandstand fence to celebrate, the question of replacing Patrick seemed more moot than the day before.

Castroneves’ team owner, the legendary Roger Penske, has a different take on the whole issue. He doesn’t believe it’s necessarily a situation of finding another Danica, but rather finding the right places to race, earning new fans and providing the best opportunity to show off the bona fide Danica alternatives.

Nor does he consider it a fair comparison to contrast IndyCar’s current perceived lack of star power to NASCAR’s household reach.

“When you look at NASCAR, we’ve got drivers who have been icon drivers for 10 or 15 years there,’’ said Penske who also fields a pair of Sprint Cup Series cars.

“We’ve gone through a period with IndyCar when we had the two leagues, so we didn’t have continuity. And we haven’t had the same schedule, the date equity you want to have at these tracks with people coming back as spectators (year after year). Beyond that, the series, with so much road racing, has attracted a number of foreign drivers who are probably the best road racers. … but their name recognition hasn’t been the same.

“(Marco) Andretti or Helio have always been someone from a fan perspective that they love to see run, Helio because of his other extracurricular activity like ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ I think Franchitti is a superstar from (the) standpoint of what he’s done on the track.

“And we need more racing in these cities where we get the proper crowds and get a different demographic. … (we need to) get new fans and build these stars around that.

And, Penske stressed, “When you’re running 43 cars and 36 races and showing up twice in these markets, and most of the drivers running NASCAR today have been around five, 10 years, there’s a lot more continuity and name recognition generated.

“Plus the TV (contract) and the overall publicity generated by NASCAR because of the continuity; that’s something (IndyCar CEO) Randy (Bernard’s) got to do and I think he’s got that opportunity.’’

Bernard said last week he’s open to adding new venues to the schedule and acknowledged there is a void to be filled with Patrick’s departure.

He doesn’t believe IndyCar needs to find a new star, but instead to promote the ones it has. Three-time defending IndyCar champion Franchitti, a four-time series champ and two-time Indy 500 winner, for example, will be remembered as one of the greatest drivers in IndyCar history. But he has never gotten the attention deserved of his accomplishments.

As for the question of venues, Bernard acknowledges it’s time to broaden the schedule’s scope and take advantage of markets where NASCAR is not.

The CART era may have had its issues, but it’s hard to beat the schedule it presented in the 1990s and early 2000s — permanent road courses such as Elkhart Lake (Wisc.) and Portland (Ore.) along with street venues in Vancouver, B.C., Montreal, Long Beach (Calif.) , Cleveland and Detroit and a great mix of ovals such as Milwaukee and Phoenix.

Add in the high-speed tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway and Iowa and the more recent street-course success stories in St. Pete and Baltimore and also IndyCar’s greatest asset, the Indianapolis 500, and you’ve got some tremendous stages to present what’s one of the best racing products going and the drivers who make it such.

Wheel-to-wheel racing at high speeds on challenging courses — oval, street and permanent road circuits — is innately exciting and unique. Very seldom does someone come to an event for the first time and not walk away a fan, or at least intrigued enough to check it out a second time.

“I think it comes down to the marketing of the series,’’ said longtime IndyCar fan Chris LaFay, 48, who was busy collecting autographs and handshakes from drivers just before Sunday’s race.

“I can’t help but feel a lot of Danica Patrick’s appeal was her look, the whole marketing package stood out. I feel if given the opportunity other drivers can fill that void and help the series be as popular as it ever was.’’

That’s the hope and the plan, according to Bernard.

“In your overall long-term strategy you have to say, ‘May the cream rise to the top.’ You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken crap, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. My point is, if you’re not winning, we can’t invest millions of dollars in someone that isn’t there. You have to be a winner to be able to make a star.

“My job is to take the very best drivers in the world and showcase their skills.’ Do I think Danica could have been even bigger if she won? Yes, I do think that. But wherever she goes she will have a positive impact on the series because she has an energy, a great personality, looks and a great sponsor and people like to be around her … and people don’t like to be around her, which is okay. She brings that energy.

“I think the world of her. Would I like to have her back one day? Of course we would. But what we have to do is showcase our sport and say, we want the best and that’s who we will showcase.’’