Niyo: Kanaan mindful of need to attract young fans

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Tony Kanaan

Detroit — Whether he knew it or not, Tony Kanaan, the 40-year-old IndyCar driver from Brazil, was quoting Taylor Swift even before he hopped in her car Saturday afternoon.

Actually, it's Chip Ganassi's car. But this weekend at the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, the No. 10 Chevrolet is unmistakably Swift's, too, with a new paint scheme – powder blue with pink highlights and a pair of sunglasses — advertising her "1989 World Tour," which made a pit stop Saturday night at Ford Field.

And there's no mistaking the Ganassi race team's intentions here, either. IndyCar racing — like just about every other sports entity — is trying to stay relevant in an oversaturated sports marketplace, tapping into the coveted 18-to-34 marketing demographic whenever possible.

The IndyCar circuit is "on a high right now," Kanaan insisted, referring to a successful Memorial Day weekend, where the Indianapolis 500 saw a ratings bump after a crash-filled week of track controversy, outdrawing the NASCAR nightcap — the Coca-Cola 600 — for the first time in a decade.

"That's the time we have the opportunity to grow," said Kanaan, a former Indy 500 and IndyCar Series winner. "We had such a negative vibe during that week, but it actually was a positive thing because people turned on the TV to watch the race. Then we put a really good show together. So we gained some viewers. We had haters, now we have viewers. And it's the same thing here."

That's the idea, at least, though a Lap 6 crash in Saturday's Chevrolet Dual in Detroit race — the first of a doubleheader here on Belle Isle – put a damper on things for Kanaan. And then Mother Nature did its thing, washing out the day's main event — a 70-lap race cut short after 47 caution flag-filled laps.

But haters gonna hate, as Swift and her 58 million-plus Twitter followers might sing, "and hopefully we just keep riding that wave," Kanaan said Saturday, hitting that same note.

In the pink

The IndyCar Series, buoyed by its new Verizon Wireless title sponsorship a year ago, is chasing the same popular crowd that NASCAR and others are, courting millenials in ways both obvious and not.

New aerodynamic body kits — blamed by some for accidents and injuries this spring — have garnered attention. And some fresh-faced young drivers have provided a lift, though nothing like Danica Patrick's arrival on the scene did a decade ago. Next year's 100th running of the Indy 500 will provide a historic platform for a new title sponsor for that race, organizers have promised.

"I think we have well-established fans already," said Kanaan, one of the more engaging drivers on the circuit. "But the old-timers and the people that watch IndyCar, they're already watching."

The challenge is getting the younger set to tune in, though, which is what all the laughing was about early Saturday afternoon, as Kanaan playfully teased his Ganassi teammate, Sage Karam, a 20-year-old series rookie whose No. 8 car was promoting country group Rascal Flatts

"The kid here, he loves Taylor, and I get to drive the car," Kanaan joked. "So that's another prank that I pulled on him this month. He was actually more mad about this than he was his pink Camaro."

That's a nod to the stunt Kanaan and fellow Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon pulled last month, telling Karam they were taking his Camaro in to get detailed and then bringing it back with a new hot-pink paint job, with pink fuzzy dice and a "Honk if you think I'm sexy" decal thrown in for added laughs.

Next generation

But all kidding aside, Kanaan said he's thrilled to have the pop star's face on his car's livery this weekend.

"I think we achieve a lot of things this weekend bringing more people to watch IndyCar, to be honest, just by having that fun," he said. "You can just look what has happened since we announced this thing on Friday. It has been crazy. We made it on (ESPN's) 'SportsCenter.' I mean, we die to make it to 'SportsCenter' and all of a sudden we're on 'SportsCenter.' So for sure I think the exposure is helping — it's unbelievable."

And no accident, either. Swift's record label is owned by Scott Borchetta, a racing enthusiast and a former driver himself.

"It was an opportunity to take our entertainment platform and combine it with this entertainment platform," Borchetta said. "And very selfishly, I love racing, so I'm always looking for opportunities to bring a younger audience in. You look at how great this product is — the race last week was fantastic — and the more we can turn on this generation to IndyCar racing, the more healthy it's going to be. We have great young drivers, we have great young artists who are interested in it."

And even the older guys can appreciate that, as Kanaan made sure to let his rookie teammate know. With races Saturday and Sunday, Karam, who actually grew up less than an hour from Swift in eastern Pennsylvania, said he'd been told he couldn't see Swift's show Saturday night, "because it's my bedtime."

"But I'll be there," Kanaan said. "I'll obviously be tweeting and send Sage some pictures. And we'll take a selfie, me and Taylor, tonight."

Whatever it takes, I guess.