Kanaan asks IRL to promote the front of the grid, too

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Over the last couple of years, Tony Kanaan has emerged as the unofficial leader for the IndyCar Series drivers. On Sunday, the 32-year old Brazilian met with Indy Racing League officials in a constructive effort to boost the series' profile with the media and the public.

Over the last couple of years, media coverage of the IndyCar Series increasingly has focused on Danica Patrick and her female driver counterparts. The return of Sarah Fisher and the arrival of Milka Duno to the series has diverted even more attention from the drivers at the sharp end of the field who are fighting for race wins and a championship.

Duno's IndyCar debut -- she qualified dead last, was lapped within 12 laps, and finished the race six laps down in 14th place -- would not merit a word of coverage from the racing press if it wasn't for her gender. Yet she was brought after the race in to charm reporters after a thoroughly underwhelming performance, with a news conference slotted in between runner-up Dario Franchitti and race-winner Dan Wheldon.

Patrick made the cover of Sports Illustrated with a fourth-place finish in the 2005 Indy 500 and she's still the biggest story in every local market the IndyCar Series visits. Sunday, the front page of the Kansas City Star was dominated by Danica's helmeted gaze and she was the subject of a lengthy profile inside the paper.

It must be galling for internationally renowned racers who could compete at the front in any form of motorsport to find themselves virtually ignored by the media in favor of midfielders or tailenders -- not that most racers actively court the spotlight or request extra time with members of the Fourth Estate.

Still, Kanaan took time out from his raceday schedule to discuss how the IndyCar Series can make the most of the personalities of all the drivers.

"We can make it better," Kanaan said. "I talked to them because we do a lot of driver appearances during the year and I wanted them to hear from me, from a driver's point of view, about some of the promotions and driver appearances we do. And I wanted to hear from them what they have in mind for the future.

"There was no big concern or complaint. I just wanted to understand the approach. I feel that to make the series grow, we need to sit down and talk, and I suggested that they talk to other drivers as well."

Indy Racing League vice president of public relations John Griffin said the league's national marketing campaign is based around four drivers -- Patrick, Dan Wheldon, Sam Hornish Jr. and Marco Andretti.

"There is not a concentrated effort to promote the female driver storyline," Griffin said. "We have a national PR agency that focuses on four drivers, including Danica. They are four young, very marketable faces and I think that any organization would want to build around those faces -- especially since three of them are American.

"From our standpoint, we have to do a better job of explaining to the drivers what we are doing and what our goals and objectives are," he added.

Kanaan said he fully understands why the media is drawn to Patrick and Duno.

"Danica is always going to draw more attention than anybody else, so you can't take her out of the picture," said the 2004 IndyCar Series champion. "But there has to be a balance. You have to draw a line, because if Danica is not performing, then what? What are you going to promote?

"I don't have any problem with not being one of the guys in the national campaign because I know where I am with my fans," Kanaan continued. "I know if I win races and do my job, the rest is going to come to me. I know I can do a better job than a lot of guys and I'm not concerned about getting more exposure.

"I'm more concerned about how we can promote the series and help it grow than being jealous of someone else."

Kanaan's Kansas race was ruined when Andretti Green Racing teammate Patrick was waved out of her pit into the 7-11 car's path. The minor impact broke the left front suspension of Kanaan's machine and put him nine laps down. Kanaan finished 15th while Patrick scored her best finish of the year, seventh.

"That wasn't her fault, it was the team's fault more than anything," he said. "As a driver, you go when they tell you to. You're not watching who is coming in and out. So I'm not mad at her at all.

"It hurt because we had a car that could battle for the lead. It was definitely a mistake that cost us a lot and we're going to address it as a team. We need to turn the page and move forward."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.