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Rubens Barrichello … moving the needle?

March 2, 2012

I’ve promised myself … a maximum of 1,200 of my own words after this paragraph … Verbosity, thy bad name is me. Here goes nothing …

On Thursday, March 1st, 2012, Rubens Barrichello inked a one-year deal with KV Racing Technologies, driving Car #8, sponsored by BMG / Embrase (LINK HERE), teaming with Tony Kanaan and E.J. Viso. Barrichello is a 19-year veteran of Formula One, with 322 career starts (#1 all-time) and 11 victories, including the 2002 U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis, finishing 2nd twice and 3rd twice in the overall Drivers Championship standings.

But will he move the needle for North American motorsports, particularly INDYCAR?

(Why do I feel like I just jumped into a lion’s den wearing boxer briefs made of raw Porterhouse steaks?)

Don’t get me wrong here … I get the hype. BELIEVE ME – I do. Rubens is as talented a driver as we have ever seen. (And there’s a period after that statement, mind you). He’s driven for 19 years, count ‘em 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14-15-16-17-18-19!, in Formula One. He has a fan base that makes most in motorsports – hell, ANYONE in motorsports – jealous. Look, here is the current list of 24 known 2012 Izod IndyCar drivers and their Twitter follower counts (numbers as of March 1st, 2012 @ 6pm Eastern)

  • Ryan Briscoe: 20,593
  • Helio Castroneves: 53,353
  • J.R. Hildebrand: 10,985
  • E.J. Viso: 16,069
  • Katherine Legge: 4,438
  • Sebastien Bourdais: 630, but 0 tweets since Feb 2010 … <sad trombone>
  • Scott Dixon: 20,488
  • Dario Franchitti: 50,227
  • Will Power: 23,196
  • Mike Conway: 9,436
  • Takuma Sato: 9,760
  • Justin Wilson: 15,689
  • James Jakes: 2,802
  • Ed Carpenter: 9,248
  • Oriol Servia: 9,673
  • Marco Andretti: 38,519
  • James Hinchcliffe: 12,066
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay: 19,143
  • Graham Rahal: 22,871
  • Josef Newgarden: 2,510
  • Simon Pagenaud: 4,020
  • Simona de Silvestro: 15,561
  • Charlie Kimball: 5,035
  • Alex Tagliani: 25,092

Let’s add up the numbers so far, shall we? That’s 401,404 followers … and let’s be honest. Many of us are following more than just one driver, right, so several of those numbers are duplicated eyeballs.

Oh, wait … whoops … I forgot a 25th driver:

  • Tony Kanaan: 448,438

Yes … T.K. has more followers as the other 24 drivers combined. Your total is now 849,842 followers. But then … today happens …

  • Rubens Barrichello: 1,473,315 (!!)

Now … I used to be a college math maj … HOLY SMOKES – DAT’S AN ARMY! I’d also be willing to bet many of those followers have only watched INDYCAR from an extreme distance, as I’m guessing many of his followers are either European and Brazilian. Again, not that it’s a bad thing.

But will he move the needle for North American motorsports, particularly INDYCAR?

History states that Formula One drivers have had well-received introductions to open-wheel racing in the United States. I’m not going to go back into the encyclopedia to note all the F1 drivers whom have raced in the Indy 500, or for that matter any of USAC/CART/CCWS/IRL/INDYCAR races. Each driver brought a legion of fans (remember Nigel & Emmo?), and became rather popular here in the States. That’s great, but that’s also ancient history to the new breed of North American motorsports fans: those that laid witness to (a) the split of CART/IRL, and (b) the meteoric rise of the 1800-lb buffalo in the room, NASCAR.

Rubens is immensely popular in European countries, in Brazil & South America, and pretty much any country with Formula One. But … here in the States, where Formula One has struggled mightily to establish a solid foothold? Yes, he’s a well-known name Formula One driver, and U.S. Formula One fans, even many of us INDYCAR fans, know of him and his wonderful (deserved) accolades in racing. However, fans of that 1800-lb buffalo in the room may have heard of him, but also may not really care. He may not “move their needle” as INDYCAR might hope … unless they cast Rubens himself as Jean Girard in “Talledega Nights 2 – The Ballad of … well … Some Character Played By Steve Carell”.

But will he move the needle for North American motorsports, particularly INDYCAR?

When Randy Bernard took office two years ago (to the day, if I recall), one of the things he mentioned was trying to bring the motorsports fan, sponsors, and media back to INDYCAR. The “split” was pure hell for them, and they migrated to other forms of racing, be it NASCAR, NHRA, USAC, Formula One, whatever. How do we bring those people back? Similarly, how do we introduce INDYCAR to fans, media, and potential new sponsors whom have not experienced this form of racing, where it’s been marketed having the most talented, versatile drivers in the world on a variety of courses, from small ovals to road courses to super speedways to street circuits to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

As I sit here and think about it, just the addition of Barrichello to the grid actually boosts the second portion of Randy’s direction. Not only do we (INDYCAR) want to bring fans affected by the “split” back to enjoying INDYCAR and open-wheel racing, but INDYCAR also needs to grow in directions the sport has not had in almost two decades. Do you think there are going to be more eyes watching Rubens and INDYCAR this year? Um – 1.4 million followers on Twitter alone?!?!? You better bet your sweet bippy there’s going to be! “Danicamania” level? Perhaps not necessarily here in the U.S., but potentially yes, Danicamania level – outside of the U.S., all without the pictorial spreads. That, to me, is rather intriguing, because with non-U.S. eyes comes non-U.S. opportunities. More people and media worldwide – now starting to pay (or pay more) attention, which could potentially equate to more sponsors (foreign & domestic alike) paying attention. This has the makings of a calm-before-the-storm moment in INDYCAR, but more for international audiences.

But will he move the needle for North American motorsports, particularly INDYCAR?

That my friends, will be a $64 question for 2012. There’s been a stigma of F1 and its drivers that there’s some stuck-upity-ness in the series. Personally, I blame Bernie Ecclestone and the powers that be in regards to how F1 is so locked down regarding personalities and passion. I’ve seen more personality shown by a piece of Saran wrap than by F1. Rubens Barrichello, in my mind, doesn’t have this stigma. Every time I’ve seen him on television, he seems laid back, enjoys life with his family, and knows when the visor goes down, he will give no quarter. He seems quite outgoing, and personally, I can’t wait to meet him & shake his hand, welcoming him to INDYCAR. I think fans will really latch onto Rubens, and to be honest, I really hope Rubens latches onto INDYCAR fans. If that happens, then yes – the needle can be moved positively. I do not think the needle gets pegged on any readout, per sé, but additional movement in the positive, in conjunction with INDYCAR’s positive movement over the last 2 years, is a welcome addition.

Now, can Rubens win a race this year? Hmm … I don’t know, to be honest. Looking at his F1 career, he does have 3 wins in Monza, Italy, which is a permanent old-school road course. So, if I were to toss a dart for a Barrichello win in 2012, I’ll go with Mid-Ohio, which has the flavor of Monza – long straights, sweeping turns, a couple technical areas. In fairness, though, adding Rubens to the KVRT lineup should make Tony Kanaan wickedly better – and wouldn’t it be a site to see Rubens & T.K. on the same podium somewhere? Don’t count THAT out either.

But will he move the needle for North American motorsports, particularly INDYCAR?
He will move the needle for North American motorsports, particularly INDYCAR!

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