By: Eric Mauk
You are starting an IZOD Indy Car Series team today, you have a brand-new Dallara with a top-flight engineering staff and battle-hardened mechanics but you need a driver to help you build a program.
You have the choice between three drivers and while none of them are bringing sponsorship with them, you have a bright new marketing chief that can probably get you $5 million if you give him the right package to work with.
Do you hire:
A) a driver that finishes 76 percent of his races and ends up in the top ten 54 percent of the time, although he has only led at 13 percent of his starts and has one series win;
B) a driver that finishes 72 percent of his starts, places in the top ten 44 percent of the time, but has led in 27 percent of his starts and has two career wins; or
C) a driver that finishes 81 percent of his starts, is in the top ten 57 percent of the time, led 24 percent of his starts and has seven wins. And then figuring in recent performance, Drivers B and C have just one top-five finish this year while Driver A has four.
Now who do you pick if you know that Driver A and Driver C have struggled to find sponsorship in their careers, finding some sponsors along the way, but never bringing in five million, while Driver B has been fully funded in every single car he has ever been in?
Every single team in the paddock with the possible exception of the Penske and Ganassi teams would go with Driver B, knowing that in signing Marco Andretti, they will have gotten one of the most marketable and recognized names in the sport, leaving A) Oriol Servia and C) Justin Wilson to find other homes.
There are those that will tell you that the only reason that Marco Andretti is in Indy Car is because he is running with his father’s Andretti Autosport team, as the racing stats will show you that he has been merely serviceable in his seven seasons. He has turned a healthy 645 laps led into just one win in his 111 starts despite having led 30 of those 111 starts. He has finished in the top 10 five times in his career – although never higher than seventh.
But Marco has been part of the most high-profile sponsorships in racing. This is the driver that wore an Indiana Jones firesuit at Indianapolis and has driven cars sponsored by Dr. Pepper, Blockbuster, RC Cola, Meijer, The New York Stock Exchange and Gillette. He has been in national commercial campaigns and had been chosen to appear on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ – although he declined to do the show after Dan Wheldon died just days before the series was to start filming.
What it boils down to for Indy Car teams can be summed up in this succinct quote from Indy Car CEO Randy Bernard.
“Wherever you go in the world, Andretti is known in racing.”
And even more attractive to Indy Car is the fact that in his seventh year of his series’ career, the driver that was reluctant to do media and was often short and brusque in his interaction with them has finally embraced his role as a spokesman for the sport.
“At nine years old in a go kart the pressure is immense because you’re looking at the race you can’t even see the racetrack because there are so many cameras around you, and you don’t know why at that age. You just want to be like, let me go, let’s go drive,” Andretti said. “Now I welcome that with open arms because I see the bigger picture. We need to get our sponsors and our brands out there and get people watching Indy Car Racing.”
Certainly he has gotten his shot because of who he is. Unquestionably. But the same can be said for Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter, along with other drivers that are here because their parents brought sponsorships from their own personal companies.
Does he need to pick up the pace? Is he having the worst season of his Indy Car career? Absolutely. But Marco Andretti needs to be in Indy Car, the series needs him, and if for some reason he would ever be released from Andretti Autosport, he would likely be a free agent for less than an hour.