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IndyCar's quest for star power

2/18/2014 - IndyCar

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Graham Rahal has seemingly been reaching for the torch for years. It's been right there at his fingertips. But for reasons often beyond his control, the 25-year-old son of former Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal has yet to grasp it.

The younger Rahal and rival/contemporary Marco Andretti, son of Michael and grandson of the legendary Mario, have long been expected to become the youthful faces of IndyCar glory, satisfying a fan base anecdotally craving American champions with its collective sentimental heart.

They're very much needed right now. IndyCar has entertaining races and interesting personalities, but it needs some pitchmen.

In a three-year period in which the series has lost three of its most charismatic personalities in Dan Wheldon, Danica Patrick and Dario Franchitti, IndyCar could use Rahal and Andretti grasping the torch together, Rahal said.

"I don't just say this because it's me, but I think the logical people to fill the void, it has to be, the only people I think that can truly fill that void has to be Marco and myself just because of our name," Rahal said Tuesday at the IndyCar Series media day. "I don't see anybody else. We have a great American. Ryan Hunter-Reay is a champion. [Canadian James] Hinchcliffe is a popular guy, but he's not going to bring it into the American public."

Scott Dixon, 33, is an engaging and wry champion, a kindred spirit in many ways with former Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth, just with a New Zealand accent instead of the Wisconsin one. The retirement of teammate Franchitti, in many ways the living embodiment of open-wheel gallantry, could create a chance for Dixon to project his personality, but he didn't when Franchitti left briefly for NASCAR in 2008 and seems much more comfortable sharing his wit in small samplings.

Tony Kanaan, 39, is immensely popular but so far containing his ebullience in his new job as Dixon's teammate.

"Kanaan, how many more years is he gonna do it?" Rahal asked. "I hope he's around a long time, but how many more years, realistically, is he going to be racing?

"Marco and myself really need to be the next face and step up and start to perform. I think there's the opportunity for that."

Perhaps they are more ready than at any point in their careers. Though he was winless last season, Andretti, 26, finished a career-best fifth in points. Rahal, whose iconic surname has not spared him from sponsorship woes for much of his career, is likely more secure than at any point in his seven-year career. With a lucrative National Guard sponsorship, Rahal Letterman Lanigan is investing in the engineering and infrastructure projects that allow megateams like Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport to wring the final modicums of speed from their race cars.

Wheldon, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 series champion, was killed in 2011 at age 33 in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Exuberant and successful as a 16-time winner, he excelled on television as a part-time analyst and was set to replace Danica Patrick in the GoDaddy-sponsored car at Andretti Autosport in 2012 when the sport's most marketable star left for a NASCAR career. Franchitti, a four-time series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was forced to retire after breaking bones in his back and ankle after crashing at Houston last season.

The series also lost one of its most popular drivers last week when Simona de Silvestro signed as an affiliated driver with the Sauber Formula One program.

"I think that Danica was the biggest draw of all those guys by a long shot. She has a following," said Team Penske's Will Power. "Apart from that, I think having [Juan Pablo] Montoya back in the series brings lot of fans from Colombia. He has a lot of Twitter followers, which is a good reference of how popular someone is. He's up there close to a million. He's a big name worldwide as well.

"I think anyone who watches this series will see it's full of really good drivers now and there's a lot of continuity there, lots of the same guys turning up every year. As far as who replaces them, I don't think it can be one. It has to be a group of drivers."

Scions play well in racing. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular driver in NASCAR, which at this Speedweeks will introduce Chase Elliott, son of former champion Bill, and Jeb Burton, son of 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward, to its broader audience. Both Rahal and Andretti drive for their fathers.

"It's funny. People are very nostalgic," Rahal said. "I think the key to a certain extent is trying to break away from that. You hope that the family lineage goes on and on and on, but at some point maybe one of our kids isn't going to want to race and that's it. We need to try to break away from it, but for now we still have the opportunity to utilize guys like Mario [Andretti], my dad, who I think is very underutilized. But there is still that opportunity to tie those things together, and we should."