Rebuilding a Team? How Mario Andretti and Josef Newgarden Helped IndyCar Rebuild An Entire Sport

IndyCar finishes its 2017 season this afternoon in Sonoma, with 26-year-old Josef Newgarden trying to capture his first championship, with four-time champion Scott Dixon and three of Newgarden’s Team Penske teammates in hot pursuit. It’s a satisfying, if not quite surprising end to a great season of racing.

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Josef Newgarden of the United States driver of the #1 hum by Verizon Chevrolet drives in practice on day 1 of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 15, 2017 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

While NASCAR has concocted a complex “playoff” system (which begins today) to sustain fan interest throughout the season, in IndyCar having the title up for grabs to the last laps of the the last race is business as usual.

It’s one of the quiet ways that the powers that be in IndyCar have quietly rebuilt the sport in the way that a smart general manager in baseball or the NFL might rebuild a team.

IndyCar suffered a major setback in 1996 with a split  between (Championship Auto Racing Teams) and IRL (Indy Racing League) that saw many of the sports biggest names locked out of competing in the legendary Indy 500. It’s a long story (well told by Road & Track’s Marshall Pruett) but  bottom line is that the the mess continued for a dozen years and it almost killed the sport.

Since its reunification in 2008, IndyCar has been trying to find its former glory. And with today’s season finale, the sport finds itself in better shape than it’s been in decades. And by this time next year, IndyCar’s comeback might be complete.

Here are four things that IndyCar did to revitalize the sport:

Develop American Heroes: Over the last decade, IndyCar has been dominated by foreign-born drivers. with only one American driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, winning the series title. In general, cultural diversity is good thing. Drivers like Helio Castroneves from Brazil, defending champ Simon Pagenaud of France, and Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato add an international flair to IndyCar that NASCAR, for one, sorely lacks.

But for casual fans are often content to simply root for the American guy. And looking forward, IndyCar features two legit American stars heading up the sport’s very best teams.

In his first year at Penske, Newgarden has gone from being a promising young driver to a guy poised to be the face of the sport. He sports Ken-Doll good looks, but he’s also an endearing goofball who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

And if things work out, he’ll spend the next 15 years or so battling an American rival. Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500 last year in a remarkable fuel economy run, and captured his first road course win in a dominating run at Watkins Glen earlier this month. A suave and sophisticated Formula 1 veteran, Rossi, who races for Penske’s top rival, Andretti Motorsport, provides a natural contrast with Newgarden and another focus for flag-focused fans.

Think Outside the Box: Driving fast is important, but it isn’t enough. Ask James Hinchcliffe who has become a crossover star after finishing second on Dancing With the Stars,  a run made all the more dramatic when his partner Sharna Burgess got injured mid-series. While I can’t imagine, say, A.J. Foyt dancing on TV,  DWTS put IndyCar on the map with millions of casual fans.  It was a natural brand extension for a guy who calls his website “Hinchtown” and invites fans to become “citizens.” Schtick? Sure. But also the kind of schticky marketing that creates fans for life.

On an entirely different level, Indycar caught a huge break when Formula One champion Fernando Alonso played hooky to drive in this year’s Indy 500.  The Spaniard, who was suffering through an awful season in his uncompetitive McLaren F1 car, skipped the Monaco Grand Prix to try his hand at IndyCar. The two-time world champion was immediately competitive, qualifying in the front row and leading the race before retiring with a mechanical failure the final laps. More to the point, Alonso’s mere presence—and his enthusiasm for the 230 mph speed at the legendary track—allowed IndyCar tap into his immense European fan base.

Embrace A Legend: What would you do for a chance to play catch with Babe Ruth? Or toss a ball around with Joe Montana? Well, that’s what IndyCar offers, only better.

Mario Andretti is unquestionably the Greatest Racing Car Driver of all time. And at age 78, racing’s GOAT drives Indycar’s two-seater at most races. Fans (and media and sponsors and VIPs like Steph Curry and Lady Gaga) not only get a chance to rub elbows with a legend, they get to do so at 180 mph. I’ve had the honor twice—on an oval at Pocono and at Watkins Glen—and it was anything but ceremonial. Whether you’re a casual fan or a hard core race geek, the two-seater experience will make you see the sport in a whole different way.

Or to put it another way: Mario Andretti is simply the the greatest ambassador in all of sports.

Roll Hot Wheels: Today’s IndyCars are attractive, in a slightly Batman Begins kind of a way. Next year’s car? It’s flat-out gorgeous.

The bodywork on the Dallara chassis—the so-called “aero kit—is sleek and sensuous in a way that evokes the great cars of the Golden Age of CART without being self-consciously “retro.” Whether it’s the minimalist superspeedway package or the more wing-heavy road course/short oval setup, the 2018 cars will be lovely to look at. And thanks to Newgarden, Rossi, Hinchliffe and 200-mph legend Andretti, these sexy cars promise to be even more fun to follow as IndyCar completes one of the great comebacks in the history of sports.