Kurt Busch gives IndyCar chance to show they’ve learned lesson on promotion

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If you’re an IndyCar Series official, you must be feeling pretty good right now.

For years, you’ve heard fans complain of a lack of compelling, straw that stirs the drink-type personalities on the grid. And now, for your biggest race of the season, there will be three of them.

Past Indianapolis 500 champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve are certainly not afraid to ruffle people’s feathers. And the latest addition, Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, is much the same way.

All of them will be part of the 98th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing this coming May, with Busch doing the “500” in an attempt to become the second driver ever to complete all 1,100 miles of the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double.

The only driver to pull that off? His NASCAR boss and teammate, Tony Stewart, who did it in 2001 with a sixth-place run for Chip Ganassi at Indy and then a third-place effort for Joe Gibbs Racing at Charlotte.

JPM, JV and now, the #DoubleOutlaw – all on the same grid. No race fan worth his or her salt would miss that.

But at the end of the day, only Montoya will still be around as a full-time IndyCar driver. Villeneuve’s ride with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is a one-off. And Busch will carry on with his Sprint Cup duties.

So while all three of them will certainly move the needle for Memorial Day weekend at the Brickyard, only one of them will be looking to do that throughout the season for the series.

And you’ll be stuck with the same problem that has continued to plague your sport seven years after its reunification and the same problem that has frustrated your steadily dwindling core of a fan base.

“Why can’t we promote our stars?”

The question has fallen to the two newest marketing people brought in by the series, Hulman Motorsports chief marketing officer C.J. O’Donnell and chief revenue officer Jay Frye, both hired in November as part of Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles’ reorganization efforts.

Neither O’Donnell or Frye are novices when it comes to promotion. O’Donnell had a long run promoting various brands inside the Ford Motor Company, while Frye pulled off an industry-first sponsorship and team ownership package with The Valvoline Company when he was a NASCAR team executive.

One assumes that as new hires, they’ve needed time to get their proverbial ducks in a row and that’s fine. And one assumes that they’ve also been devoting time toward pursuing a new title sponsor for IndyCar to replace IZOD – a sponsor that can activate and engage fans like IZOD did in the early part of its pact with the series.

But sooner or later, they’re gonna have to get to work on pushing the full-time drivers, not just the ones coming in for May.

The good news for them is the cupboard is not bare despite the losses of perhaps the quintessential open-wheel driver, Dario Franchitti, and the possibly Formula One-bound Simona de Silvestro.

Reigning series champion Scott Dixon surely would’ve preferred not to have had those run-ins with Will Power toward the tail end of last year, but they certainly showed that there is a fire burning within his “Iceman” persona. Other veterans such as Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan, and American stalwart Ryan Hunter-Reay also remain bankable.

At the same time, those veterans (minus Montoya, who’s been in NASCAR for the last seven years) have pretty much been the same guys promoted by IndyCar for years now. There hasn’t been a true expansion on the front that includes the newer wave of drivers.

Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, of course, have the family names. Josef Newgarden’s social media savvy is begging to be further utilized in the Twitter/Facebook age. Charlie Kimball has gone beyond “diabetic driver” status to become a legit contender. And James Hinchcliffe pretty much sells himself: A fun-loving goofball that can kick ass in a race car.

It’s not exactly a series of milquetoasts and misfits. You’d think O’Donnell, Frye and IndyCar would be able to work with this.

Again…You’d think.

Let’s go back two years ago, when Hunter-Reay won the IndyCar championship with Andretti Autosport. He became IndyCar’s first American champ since Sam Hornish Jr. won it all for Team Penske in 2006.

Hunter-Reay had battled through multiple obstacles in his career, from underfunded teams to a lack of job security. For a time, he had devoted every ounce of his being simply to keeping his head above water in the sport.

When he clinched the 2012 title at Fontana, it was the ultimate storybook ending. And IndyCar had a chance to do something with it. This was the proverbial ball placed on a tee, ready to be crushed over the fence, David Ortiz-style.

Instead, they had a curveball thrown. A management shake-up occurred and by October 2012, then-CEO Randy Bernard had left the series. As a result, there was no big off-season push for Hunter-Reay, the star-spangled hero that had never given up and had finally reached the top.

These days, Hunter-Reay is a key part of IndyCar’s nucleus. But you can’t help but think he should be a household name right now, too.

Speaking of right now, there are less than four weeks to go before IndyCar’s 2014 season begins in St. Petersburg, Florida. The series recently had its Media Day in Orlando, but nothing truly big was broken there.

Instead, the major news lately has been Indy 500-centric, from Villeneuve and Busch’s rides to entertainment announcements such as country music star Jason Aldean playing Legends Day and world No.1-ranked DJ Hardwell playing in the Snake Pit on Race Day.

One figures IndyCar will have the promotional engines going for the #DoubleOutlaw saga in May. But whatever they learn from that, those lessons need to be applied to the series as a whole.

The Indy 500 will always be its greatest asset and it’s safe to say the world’s greatest race has regained a lot of the luster it lost during the Split years. But now, everything else around it needs to be bolstered.

IndyCar racing may never completely regain its former glory here in North America. That’s simply down to the fact that they’re battling with a bigger array of entertainment options than there were two or three decades ago.

But it can be better than what it is now. Motorsport as a whole is better with a stronger IndyCar.

And it all comes down to IndyCar effectively showing the world what they can do.

Schmidt Peterson hires IndyCar’s first female lead engineer, will work with Hinchcliffe

Photo courtesy Audi Sport
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Leena Gade, who helped lead Audi to three wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has joined Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as lead engineer for the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda of driver James Hinchcliffe.

“I’m really honored that I’ve got a chance to come across and work in INDYCAR,” Gade said in a team media release. “When I was a kid, I used to watch Indy car (racing), especially when Nigel Mansell first came over (in 1993), and I followed it quite a lot.

“During my sports car days, it was a little less so, until I had friends come across to the U.S. to work in it like Piers (Phillips, SPM’s general manager).

“I’m quite honored to be given the chance. It is going to be something completely different to anything I’ve ever done before, so it’s a big learning curve, but it’s a challenge that I’m really relishing, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Gade, who grew up in India and is from Great Britain, is one of the most recognized engineers in all forms of international motorsports. She becomes the first female lead engineer in Verizon IndyCar Series history.

She’s also the second female lead engineer in Indy racing history, joining Diane Holl, who served as engineer for Adrian Fernandez, Tony Kanaan (Tasman Motorsports) and Richie Hearn (Della Penna Motorsports) in CART from 1996-2000.

Gade, who holds engineering degrees from the University of Manchester in England, has engineered cars in several race series and for several manufacturers, including F1, BMW, A1 Grand Prix, GT racing, Jaguar, Audi and most recently with Bentley Motorsport.

She became the first female race engineer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011, and followed that up with another Le Mans win in 2012, as well as being part of the World Endurance Championship drivers and manufacturers titles in the same year.

Also in 2012, she was named FIA WEC “Man of the Year” and was awarded the C&R Racing Women in Technology award from the Lyn St. James Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation.

Her team also won Le Mans for a third time in 2014.

“There was significant interest in Leena amongst the international motorsports community, so we’re really excited that she sees where we’re taking SPM, believes in what we’re doing and that she is now a part of our organization,” Piers Phillips said. “ I’ve known Leena for quite some time now and I’ve worked alongside her, so I knew the credit she’s been given is well deserved. We’re very much looking forward to throwing her into the deep end and seeing her add to the team’s success.”

Gade and Hinchcliffe go into the deep end that Phillips referenced when they take part in a team test Jan. 24 at Sebring International Raceway, the first time the pair will work together.