Should IndyCar Fans Pull For Danica?
After the disastrous weekend that Danica Patrick had at Daytona this weekend, I noticed a flurry of tweets and comments throughout various IndyCar websites from fans taking great delight in Ms. Patrick’s misfortunes. As tempting as it may be to gloat, especially if Danica rubbed you the wrong way for the past seven seasons – if you are a true fan of the IZOD IndyCar Series, it might be best if Danica succeeds over there.
There is a long list of open-wheel drivers that have gone south to NASCAR, only to get their head handed to them. In the past twenty years, the IndyCar driver that has enjoyed the greatest amount of success is probably John Andretti. [UPDATE: yes, I'm well aware that I somehow omitted Tony Stewart and his accomplishments from this post. My e-mail and Twitter (@Oilpressureblog) accounts have been smoking over this. My apologies for a boneheaded omission.] Andretti had one career victory in CART- the 1991 season-opener at Surfer’s Paradise in Australia, which happened to be the debut of his new team Hall/VDS Racing. After losing his ride after the 1993 season, he dabbled in NASCAR and even tried his hand at Top Fuel in NHRA before moving full-time to NASCAR in 1995. Andretti amassed two NASCAR wins – the summer race at Daytona in 1997 and Martinsville in 1999.
Juan Montoya has also scored two NSCS victories, but they were both on road courses. Plus, more was expected from him after winning seven Formula One races, ten CART races, a CART championship and the Indianapolis 500. After Monday night, he can also claim victory over a jet-dryer.
Robby Gordon has run almost four hundred Sprint Cup races over the past nineteen years. In that time, he has collected three victories. I’m not sure that record meets anyone’s definition for success.
Going back much further, AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti both tried their hand at NASCAR – and won. They both own victories in the Daytona 500, but that was in the day when it was common for a driver to try multiple series within a season.
More recently, NASCAR has been the destination of some of the top names in IndyCar. The series champions for 2006 and 2007, Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti respectively, both bolted for NASCAR in 2008. They both flopped miserably. There will be those who disagree with my assessment, but they must have a worse definition of “flop” than I do. Mercifully, Franchitti’s car ran out of money midway through the 2008 season. His results prior to the team folding were absolutely abysmal. That same season, Hornish could place no higher than thirteenth and was lucky to finish thirty-fifth. The next two seasons he finished twenty-ninth in 2009 and 2010. He is now considered fortunate to be able to run a complete Nationwide schedule for 2012.
Based on the NASCAR performance of Franchitti and Hornish – two drivers that carried elite status in IndyCar – the growing perception throughout NASCAR and its legion of blindly loyal fans is that IndyCar’s best can’t even carry a helmet in NASCAR. And as we have learned through the years with NASCAR – perception is reality.
From Michael Waltrip crowing that the Daytona 500 is America’s biggest race, to his brother Darrell claiming that Franchitti’s partial season in NASCAR is what led to his winning three straight IndyCar championships – casual racer fans hear this stuff and believe it. It’s no wonder that most sports fans today consider IndyCar to be totally irrelevant. With the NASCAR propaganda machine operating at full capacity, how could anyone think any different? Fortunately, even Danica acknowledged earlier last week that the Indianapolis 500 is a much bigger race than the Daytona 500. I’ll bet that didn’t go over so well with the NASCAR faithful.
So now comes Danica with her marketing armada. My problem with Danica was never her talent. I always considered her a better than average driver, who specialized in consistency, taking care of her equipment and bringing the car home in one piece. Like most die-hards, I simply resented the disproportionate airtime she got. I understood the novelty in 2005, when she was a rookie. But several years later, it got old listening to Marty Reid salivate every time the camera followed her while riding around in seventeenth place.
But I also recognize that losing her from the IZOD IndyCar Series is a tangible loss. I’m sure it helped other teams and drivers to land sponsorship deals when they could say that they would be racing in the same series with Danica Patrick. The name Danica has transcended sports. Casual fans didn’t know if she raced stock cars, IndyCars or whatever. They knew she was a racecar driver. Now that she’s gone from IndyCar; the casual fans that are coveted for their potential to be real fans, will probably never know she raced in IndyCar first – even if they know what IndyCar is.
But the NASCAR die-hards will know where she came from – the same series that produced Hornish and Franchitti – two drivers that excelled in IndyCar, but fell on their face in NASCAR. And don’t think for a minute that NASCAR doesn’t enjoy propagating the myth that IndyCars are much easier to drive than stock cars. That is why the NASCAR fans are all expecting her to fail – she only won once over there. Hornish and Franchitti had won championships and the Indianapolis 500 and they fell on their face. How can they expect any more out of Danica?
Some of the NASCAR hard cores are already growing tired of Ms. Patrick. I have a co-worker that is a true NASCAR fan. Even before the Bud Shootout, he was asking me why all the talk that week had been about Danica, Danica, Danica. He was sick of it already. I told him to get used to it – that’s what we’ve dealt with for the past seven seasons.
So – even though I’ve never been a real fan of hers, I’m pulling for Danica Patrick to succeed in NASCAR. If she does well, it eases the strong perception that IndyCar drivers are second-rate and don’t have the skill of NASCAR drivers. Maybe our series is behind NASCAR in marketing and driver’s name recognition, but from top to bottom – I’ll stack the talent level in the IZOD IndyCar Series up against NASCAR any day. The sheer speed and reflexes involved, coupled with the versatility required to succeed on all types of tracks, make IndyCar drivers stand out. If Danica Patrick can win in NASCAR, then she will do more to close the perception gap than anything else could. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what NASCAR had in mind.