What If Danica DID Leave?

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Sunday morning, I awoke to a televised report on ESPN that Danica Patrick would be racing in NASCAR. Then the report went on to say that she would only be racing in the trucks and Nationwide series. Curious, I checked the internet and found further clarification that she would be staying in IndyCars and more than likely resigning with Andretti-Green Racing. While the televised SportsCenter blurb was a little misleading, it gave me time to have a gut-reaction the so-called enormity of Danica Patrick leaving IndyCars before I got the rest of the story. What was my reaction? – So what? The IndyCar Series will survive.

Please understand, that I understand. I get it that Danica Patrick is a marketing machine. The problem is that in the five seasons that she has been in the IndyCar Series, she has been a marketing machine for Danica Patrick rather than the Indy Racing League. There are a few curiosity seekers that might tune in to watch the Indianapolis 500 each May because of Danica, but I don’t think many of them were watching the other fourteen races that have taken place so far this season. Otherwise, the ratings on ABC and Versus would not be as abysmal as they have been.

And what kind of marketing machine is she really? Her most visible commercials are of the man-boob signing type of commercials for Boost Mobile, her way too repetitive Peak Automotive products or the ridiculously cheesy Go-Daddy commercials. It is a rare thing to see any of these ads away from an IndyCar telecast. The true definition of a marketing machine is Peyton Manning or Michael Jordan in his heyday. Granted, Peyton Manning is probably over-exposed, but his portfolio of product lines include Sony, Gatorade, DirecTV, Sprint, Oreo cookies, MasterCard and ESPN SportsCenter among others and are much more powerful names than the ones Danica represents.

Some say that the small platform that the Indy Racing League offers her is the reason her exposure is so limited. They argue that NASCAR will offer her a broader reach to command the almighty endorsement dollars. Granted, the IRL doesn’t come close to the NFL in marketing visibility, but I still wonder if NASCAR will bring her the earning power away from the track that she expects. Ultimately, sponsors will have to want her. Have the Sports Illustrated photo shoots make her as attractive to Madison Avenue executives as they have to young adolescent males? If so, I would have thought she would already be sought out for more lucrative advertising contracts than what she has.

She did command a three-year, twenty-one million dollar deal from Motorola to sign with AGR for 2007. Did they get a return on their investment? Do we know that the current contract talks are commanding dollar figures in that same area? If so, then my theory is completely wrong. I have no clue what types of numbers are being negotiated. Motorola ads featuring Danica Patrick have been practically non-existent since she signed her contract near the end of the 2006 season, but it is up to them and/or Boost Mobile to decide what value they have gotten from Ms. Patrick.

When she switched to Boost Mobile beginning with this year’s Indianapolis 500, I thought they were a division of Motorola. They are not. Boost Mobile is the no-contract division of Sprint. Motorola makes phones for them and it appears they have exclusivity, but that is the extent of their relationship. Does the “no-contract” phone market represent the typical demographic for the IndyCar Series?

Notice I’ve mentioned nothing of Danica’s ability to perform on the track. I have never driven a stock car (although I did drive and IndyCar at IMS through the Indy Racing Experience…great time, but that’s another topic) but I understand that driving a stock car requires a lot more strength and endurance than an IndyCar. I’m not being sexist and saying that no women can do that. I’m just not sure that a petite 100-pound woman can, over a five hundred mile stretch each week over a season that stretches from February through November.

Danica has honed her skills over the last five seasons to be a top-tier driver and that is reflected in this year’s point standings. She has become a consistent heads-up driver that has a reputation of bringing the equipment home in one piece. She is not however, considered a threat to ever win a race. The one race she won was a fuel-mileage race that she lucked into. Many drivers luck into those throughout their careers, but it is the consistent winners that actually earn victories combined with the fuel-economy wins that win the respect for their driving abilities.

One reason why she hasn’t been considered a favorite to win this year has been the underwhelming performance of AGR. If they were to work their way back to where they were considered on the same level with Penske and Ganassi; would she be considered a favorite each race along with Ryan Briscoe or Dario Franchitti? I’m not so sure. But if she thinks she has a better chance of being successful in NASCAR – then more power to her. Chances are though, she’ll just trudge around in a circle for thirty-six races a year and collect a bigger paycheck. Which goes back to the question…how much is enough?

If Danica is in this to see how much of a golden goose she can snare, then she’d better make the jump to tin-tops. If she wants to continue to hone her skills in open-wheel to the point that she can be a consistent winner as well as be considered a threat to win the Indy 500, year after year – then she’d better stay put. My bet is that she will go for the gold and leave her lifelong dreams behind.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “What If Danica DID Leave?”

  1. One could make the argument that, at least for the duration of her new Indy Car contract (2 years?), Danica is worth even more to the IRL as a part time NASCAR driver. Add to that the (potential) shifting of the 500’s time slot so drivers can “do the double,” and you’ve got to figure that more NASCAR fans will start paying attention to Indy Car.

    Boost Mobile: if I remember correctly (that’s a crapshoot), Motorola sold the remainder of their deal with AGR to Boost Mobile. Pretty sure that started with the 500.

    Which is tougher: driving a NASCAR sled is absolutely NOT more physically demanding than driving an Indy Car. It’s not even close. I don’t know where you got that understanding, but it’s a misunderstanding for sure. You’ve got company though; seems like quite a few NASCAR fans and commentators share the misperception that Indy Cars are about finesse, and NASCAR wagons are about strength, but it would be a lot more accurate to say the opposite. Indy Car drivers are the fittest in all of American auto racing; I have no doubts about that whatsoever.

    Back when Rusty Wallace was announcing IRL races, he made a remark to the effect that, “you would not believe how hard these cars are to steer.” So, there’s the opinion of a NASCAR driver.

  2. My first reaction was “that worked out great for Sarah Fisher” (Nascar’s minor leagues) “and Tony Kanaan” (re-signing with AGR).

    But to the meat the article, whether Danica really means anything to the IRL, I’ll offer this. I often wonder about the health of Indycar racing based on what I see of its fans. I live in Southern Cal so we’re fewer and farther between, but I get the impression that the average Indycar fan is an aging white male.

    I think a lot of us ended up becoming fans of a particular sports from our parents. For a lot of us, the Indy500 began as a bonding experience between father and son, either going to the race or watching it on TV. The major sports all easily offer that: they’re on tv all the time, and if you live in a city, chances are there’s a team that’s not too far away, even if it’s minor league or college.

    But you don’t get that with Indycar. The events are semi-regular. They probably only have a sort-of local race once a year, and you pay dearly to go to it. It’s an expensive family event. NASCAR runs every weekend.

    The result is that I wonder how many children end up being exposed to it, and become fans. I would guess not as many.

    Danica does appeal to the young and to women, and exposes people to the sport who wouldn’t normally give it the time of day. I think Tony Kanaan is the best ambassador for the sport, but he doesn’t draw people outside of the sport (not in the USA). Non-fans have no idea who he is.

    But Danica is a different story. She may not be fully translating her stardom into the sport, but I think the IRL gets a dividend from it. I also think that the payoff will take some time to mature.

  3. Robin Miller outlines the biggest issue facing the IRL today and going forward in the future: http://auto-racing.speedtv.com/article/miller-nobody-is-watching/

    The ratings are abysmal, almost infomercial level. So far in its 11 races on VERSUS, the IRL’s average rating of 0.32 figures out to less than 240,000 people per race. The official numbers say that the VERSUS telecasts have reached 2,552,000 households and that represents roughly 3,310,000 viewers. And those aren’t average numbers, that’s the TOTAL for all 11 events.

    By contrast, this year’s Indy 500 on ABC reached 4.5 million homes and was watched by 6.3 million. The other four ABC races in ’09 made it into 3,710,000 homes and totaled 4,619,000 eyeballs for an average of just over 1.1 million per telecast.

    • I’d like to see how things are this time next year. I guess I’m the only one, but I was continually frustrated with having to look up which channel was going to carry the race at any given time. ABC? ESPN? ESPN2? And God forbid the race ran long or started late due to rain, and you’d have to watch for a crawl to know which channel to switch to so that they didn’t interrupt Golf in Dubai.

      I can’t imagine how not having all the races on one channel is anything but a good thing.

  4. What about the possibility of keeping the current Versus package with, potentially, a highlights show on ABC/ESPN (or whichever)?

  5. Brian in Panama City Says:

    I’m amazed at the insight of these blog posts and most of the comments. ~ by true American open-wheel racing fans, FOR true fans, dwinding in number, it seems ~ Everyone keep it up! This is my favorite recreational reading on the internet.

  6. John Farce Says:

    “Danica has honed her skills over the last five seasons to be a top-tier driver and that is reflected in this year’s point standings.”

    She ain’t a “top tier” driver. Never will be.

    Her being 5th in the points standings, just tells you how lame the sport is. The guy in 4th actually MISSED a race. Marco is 6th and he has hardly sniffed a win (or led a lap) for 2 years.

    She has done a nice job of collecting points. That’s about it. She doesn’t pass many cars or ever tries to pass cars. She is ultra-conservative, often looking like she is content to finish 6th or 7th. That is not the mark of a “top driver”. That is the mark of a medicore driver, driving for a team that has good enough stuff to get her to 6th or 7th. And she doesn’t truly care about “winning” races. She truly cares about cashing checks and being a celebrity. That is her #1 aim and is no question her daddy’s #1 aim.

    She is what she is. And at her age, that is not likely to change.

  7. tim nothhelfer Says:

    If she leaves a seat will open and there will be other drivers trying to fill it. Some of them are female and talented too. The junior and carting ranks are full of hopefuls with ambition….

  8. I totally agree with your column, George, except for the part about Danica being a top-flight driver. John Farce beat me to it, but I’ll piggyback on what he said-a otp flight driver doesn’t run around, trying to save fuel and hoping that others will fall out so they can move up, which is Danica’s MO as she clearly lacks the skills or speed to be competitive in the IndyCar series.

    As far as her markteting is concerned, you are totally spot on about that as well. The only person who has benfiited from her off-track actions is Danica. IF she actually did anything to help the seires, don’t you think the ratings would be better, attendance would be higher and more sponsors would be in the series. Danica Patrick is an attention whore, more concered with her “brand” than actually being a race car driver. And when she goes, I will cry no tears. Let the doorknob hit ya where the good lord split ya, Dancia. Goodbye and good riddance! to you.

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