Views from the Grandstands
NASCAR will change, for better or worse, with Patrick’s arrival
NASCAR Nation, get ready. The Danica Patrick era is here.
Starting in February, the most popular female driver who hasn’t won a race in years will be driving a Nationwide Series car for Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular male driver to not win a race in years.
Years ago, I lauded Patrick as one of the women chipping away at the asphalt ceiling. She had just won her first IndyCar race (Motegi, Japan, 2008) and seemed poised to add more.
Then life took one of its funny turns. Patrick’s open-wheel career plateaued; she never won another open-wheel race. At the same time, her marketing presence blossomed. Here in Texas, we call that all hat and no cattle.
I suspect this style-over-substance ranching metaphor will continue to be apt, and some in the racing world think that’s not such a bad thing. Of course, these folks tend to be on the business side of the sport rather than the competition side. As a fan, however, I see some downsides to Patrick’s move to NASCAR.
All Danica all the time
Patrick will continue to get disproportionate attention from the NASCAR media. Her every move, on and off the track, will be followed, analyzed and in most cases delivered as a positive no matter what.
We’ve already seen this in her initial forays into stock cars. Now we’ll get it in every Nationwide race and the handful of Sprint Cup races (see Loose Lugnuts below) she’ll run.
If you’re already ticked off that the broadcasters don’t give your favorite driver enough coverage, you’re only gonna get madder. And despite what NASCAR thinks, that won’t help TV ratings. Most NASCAR fans follow specific drivers. Jeff Gordon has been my driver since I discovered the sport when he was in what was then the Busch series. When the 24 is running poorly or crashes out early, my interest tends to wane. Judging from my conversations with other NASCAR fans, I am not alone.
So if Patrick can’t turn all the looky-loos into hardcore fans, she’s not going to help the sport’s long-term appeal. And until the TV teams calling the races get past “all Danica all the time,” their over-focus is going to turn off many current fans.
Other Nationwide teams will suffer
Mid-pack drivers already have been hurt by the Patrick overkill. Invariably, the TV cameras are focused on race leaders or Danica making a pass for 22nd place. That means the other drivers around her who would normally get at least a minimal bit of airtime will be even less visible.
And once a race is over, other drivers/teams/sponsors are overlooked as track reporters jostle to get a reaction from Danica regarding her middle-of-the-pack performance.
This inordinate attention means the sponsors of other similarly situated cars are ignored. If the businesses that grace vehicle hoods aren’t getting TV time, they might start wondering about the return they’re getting on their investment.
‘Danica’s good for NASCAR’ myth
Let’s set this straight right now. Patrick is not necessarily good for the sport. But the sport is good for her.
Sure, casual fans will watch a race or two and maybe go see her in person. But few of those folks will become hardcore stock car fans.
Despite all the hoopla and NASCAR executives’ hope, there is no proof that Patrick has ever driven ticket sales or TV ratings. She got a lot of attention for leading a few laps at the 2005 Indy 500 and her win at Motegi, but ticket sales and TV ratings for subsequent races didn’t exactly pop.
Where you see bigger crowds is around Patrick’s souvenir trailer, and that brings me to my final bit of trepidation about her arrival in my favorite racing series.
Patrick is a short-timer
No one doubts Danica’s determination. Regardless of gender, racers have to be committed to cope with some daunting physical, mental and psychological challenges.
But many, me included, question exactly what Patrick’s determined to do.
As a racer, she certainly wants to win. But how many wins does she need? One trip to a NASCAR victory lane, and she then could say “I’ve done it” and move on, parlaying that trophy into all sorts of ancillary money — which she’s already darn good at doing.
As Bobby Rahal, the IndyCar fixture who gave Danica her start back in 2001, says, “I guess I presumed she’d be in TV commercials and in Hollywood some day.”
She’s already cornered the market on racers starring in ads. And if she ever does take a NASCAR checkered flag, no need to continue the grueling schedule. I can hear her now: “I’m young, I’m pretty, have you seen my trophy? Call me when you’re in Los Angeles.”
Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.
Speaking of Danica
As skeptical as I am of Danica Patrick’s jump to NASCAR, at least she’s not leaping right into the Sprint Cup Series. Of the 10 races in the big series she’s planning to run in 2012, only a few are in the season’s first half — meaning she’ll get a lot of Nationwide Series seat time to get more used to stock cars.
Patrick will make her Sprint Cup debut at Daytona in February, then race at Darlington in May. After that, she’s scheduled to run at Bristol in August; Atlanta, Chicago and Dover in September; and Texas and Phoenix in November. She also plans to add two more starts at some point. Debuting at Daytona is more about publicity than prudence, but at least she already has some superspeedway experience. And by the time Bristol rolls around two-thirds of the way through the season, she should be comfortable enough to at least hold her own.
Forget Kevin Harvick vs. Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards vs. Brad Keselowski. The most explosive personality clash in all of motor-sports is McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton vs. Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. In the span of 12 races last year, the two men clashed and/or crashed an amazing six different times.
They insist there’s nothing personal between them, but most of the blame seems to belong to Hamilton. He’s developed quite a reputation for his aggressiveness, but this kind of recklessness is counter-productive for an excellent driver who ought to be focused more on winning titles than jousting with a competitor who’s usually on the fringe of contention.
Stewart the second
One of the biggest blows Joe Gibbs Racing ever suffered came when Tony Stewart left. So it’s a nice coincidence to see the Gibbs organization bring another Stewart into the fold. This Stewart isn’t Smoke, but rather James “Bubba” Stewart, a motorcycle ace who’s the first African-American rider to win an AMA Supercross title. Gibbs plans to have the 25-year-old Stewart continue to compete in the motorcycle ranks while beginning the transition into stock cars by running in some regional NASCAR series with an eye on eventually stepping up to the Nationwide Series.
He becomes the third motorcycle star to try his hand in NASCAR, following Ricky Carmichael, who’s been running in the trucks series, and Travis Pastrana, who’s set to make his Nationwide debut in 2012.