Are We Really Glad To See Danica Go?
Again, I feel as if I’ve bounced back pretty well from the second bout with crud in a week. Maybe I pushed this tired old body too much last weekend as I had to attend an outdoor wedding during a cold snap last weekend. This weekend, I have no plans other than watching football and taking it easy. I’m normally very healthy and rarely even have a cold, so to get something to slam me into bed two weeks in a row is something I’m just not used to. Once again, I appreciate the well-wishes and hope that this crud is behind me for good. Anyway, on to more important things…
In the two and a half years I have been doing this site, I’ve covered a lot of topics – many of them on multiple occasions. I’ve written about my childhood memories at the Indianapolis 500 on countless days, as well as my admiration for AJ Foyt, Helio Castroneves and Roger Penske. I have also touched on how tiresome I think Paul Tracy has become on numerous occasions along with the rise and fall of Andretti Autosport and TV coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series. Not only do those topics intrigue and fascinate me, they tend to spark a lot of dialogue.
One subject I’ve chosen not to spend as much time on as most bloggers; is that of Danica Patrick. It’s no secret that I’ve never been a huge fan of hers, but I have always been aware that her presence may have brought value to the series – so I chose to not gripe about her antics as often as I would have liked.
Well now that Ms. Patrick is heading into possibly her last race ever in an IndyCar, I thought it would be appropriate to at least examine what benefits her presence brought to open-wheel racing and what loss, if any, will be felt in the coming seasons.
When Danica Patrick began her rookie season, driving for Rahal-Letterman Racing in 2005, few outside of the IndyCar community had heard of her. We knew her as an up and coming American driver who had a solid two-year stint driving for Rahal in the Toyota Atlantics series. I say solid because she had five podium finishes out of twenty-four races, but her best finish was a second place in the 2003 season finale. There were no wins, although she finished third in points in 2004. All in all, she had a solid two seasons in Atlantics and she seemed ready to move up. She garnered more attention than most Atlantics drivers because she was (a) an American, (b) a female and (c) attractive; and not necessarily in that order. Adding to the curiosity was the racy photo-shoot she had done for Maxim magazine that had surfaced. There was no nudity, but they certainly were, um, worth a look.
She ran well enough in her IndyCar debut at Homestead, until she got caught up in a late race accident that was not of her doing. Her next races at Phoenix and St. Petersburg were not noteworthy. She seemed to be having a pretty normal rookie season, until the series went to the egg-shaped oval at Motegi where she qualified on the front row. Danica showed her skill and determination early battling Sam Hornish for the lead before eventually settling for fourth. This created the springboard for the month of May that saw the birth of Danicamania.
During qualifying, she caught the eyes of the Indy die-hards with a qualifying run that would have probably put her on the pole had it not been for a bobble on her first lap in Turn One. Although the bobble cost her the pole, her save won the respect of a lot of doubters – including yours truly. The windy and cold conditions that day made it risky to make another run and her car owner, Bobby Rahal, chose to settle for fourth. It was then that we saw our first glimpse of "Bad Danica" as she pouted and pounded the pit wall in frustration. In the space of a few hours, her excellent driving skills and her boorish behavior were both on display for the world to see. Some of us didn’t like the behavior, others did.
By the time Race Day of the 2005 Indianapolis 500 rolled around, ABC/ESPN made sure that the world knew who Danica Patrick was. Her race was a mixed bag – typical of most rookies. We all remember the laps she led due to a gamble on fuel strategy as she wound up fourth. Had Sebastien Bourdais not crashed in the waning laps, chances are she would have run out of fuel – but it made for great television as Todd Harris foamed at the mouth. What most tend to forget was her inexperience on an earlier re-start that saw her spin her tires and take out the entire contingent from Panther Racing – Tomas Scheckter and Tomas Enge – in one spin, while she drove on needing only a new front nose and losing only one position in the process.
Dan Wheldon won the race, but who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated? You guessed it – Danica Patrick. At Texas, Danicamania was at full throttle. She finished thirteenth while Scheckter won, but Todd Harris and ESPN would not allow anyone to take their eyes off of Danica. The month of July saw Danicamania taken to a new level when Danica won the pole at Kansas. She equaled that feat again at Kentucky and Chicago. America had a new hero and IndyCar finally had a star they could cash in on. But "Bad Danica" resurfaced at Fontana, when she allegedly punched driver Jaques Lazier in the safety vehicle after Lazier crashed and took her out. She had won Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500 and for the IndyCar season, but had ruffled more than a few feathers along the way.
It got worse in 2006. No longer was the powerful Honda engine the exclusive domain of a few select teams. Now everyone had it and her Rahal-Letterman team seemed to be on the decline. They switched in mid-season from the Panoz chassis to the Dallara and struggled throughout the season. We were learning quickly that Danica is not pleasant to watch when things aren’t going her way. At Milwaukee that year, she and Dan Wheldon tangled on-track and she let him have it off-track. On camera, we saw Weldon sort of smile while sipping his water-bottle as she went through her tirade. When he had grown tired of her rant, he just turned and walked away only to be grabbed and then shoved by Danica. Many saw this as the sign of a powerful woman asserting herself in a man’s world. Others saw this as another in a growing list of childish acts by Danica. Some interpreted her shoves and punches to fellow drivers as cowardly taking advantage of her gender. It’s a lose-lose situation for a guy. Let her get away with it and you’re a wuss and a laughing stock. Retaliate and you’re labeled as a bully who hits women and you’re the scourge of the earth.
By the end of her second season, Patrick announced she would be leaving Rahal-Letterman and joining Andretti-Green Racing with a three-year, $21 Million deal with Motorola. By this time, her act was wearing thin with many of the die-hard IndyCar fans. Her entourage had grown larger and she carried herself as pretty much of a prima-donna. But we were told she was good for the series. She was bringing in new fans. Young girls all wanted to be like Danica. We were told that without Danica, the series would surely die.
The 2008 season saw more antics from Danica. As she was exiting the pits at Indianapolis, Ryan Briscoe lost control of his rear-end and clipped her ending the race for both. After her crew drug her car back to her pit, she did her infamous stomp down pit-lane – obviously to beat up the dastardly Briscoe, who surely had it coming to him. Fortunately Charles Burns intercepted Danica, sparing Briscoe of a certain pounding. This happened right in front of my seats. On TV, it sounded like everyone was cheering Danica on. What I heard in the stands, was everyone jeering her. SportsCenter loved it. I was not amused. She made headlines again that summer in Mid-Ohio when she and Milka Duno got into it when Danica went into Milka’s pit to confront her about her (lack of) driving skills. Milka responded by throwing a towel in her face. The TV cameras loved it. It got the predictable "Cat-Fight" headlines and everyone had a big chuckle. But was this really the kind of publicity the series needed?
The last five years for Danica at Andretti Autosport have to be considered a disappointment. The team declined dramatically in that time. Whether that is attributable to her presence is debatable. She has won one race, and has had six more podium finishes in eighty-six races with the team. She manages to bring her car home in one piece, but rarely seems to push a car to the limit. Her best finishes have been due to fuel strategy rather than raw nerves and speed. In the meantime, there have been the Sports Illustrated bikini layouts, the obligatory appearances at the ESPY’s and countless cheesy Go-Daddy ads. All of this interspersed with continual drama focusing on every next move.
For years, we have been held hostage by rumors of her moving to NASCAR. To no one’s surprise, she announced this summer that she would be leaving the IZOD IndyCar Series after this season to move to NASCAR full-time. I think, by now, even her biggest fans have grown tired of her attitude and have decided it’s best to part ways. Now that it’s done, is it really for the best? Is this a case of "better watch what you ask for – you just might get it"?
Danica Patrick did bring some new eyeballs to the sport of open-wheel racing. She also made it easier for the current wave of female drivers to make it to this level. Simona de Silvestro, Ana Beatriz and Pippa Mann will probably be joined by another wave headed by Shannon McIntosh in just a few years. But how many of those curious eyes that tuned in seven seasons ago have become IndyCar fans? I’ll bet not that many. She could still bring some viewers to the Indianapolis 500 should she choose to run that race next year, but I’m not sure she will.
But if I had any inclinations to ever defend Ms. Patrick as a spokesperson for the IZOD IndyCar Series, they were dashed this past April. My friend John McLallen and I were roaming the paddock at Barber on the Friday before the race. There was a large groups of special needs kids touring the grounds. We had just met up with longtime commenter Brian McKay, when we suddenly saw Danica and her entourage coming toward us. Just as she was right in front of us, one of the special needs kids called her name for her autograph. She looked back, saw him and looked back straight ahead and walked faster. The kid caught up to her and grabbed her arm. She wheeled around, snatched the card from his hands, scribbled her autograph while walking and shoved it back to him without even looking his way. We then heard her complain to someone in her entourage "My God, I thought he was going to tackle me". The kid lit up like a firefly, but she treated him as a nuisance. Had the TV cameras been rolling, I feel certain she would have behaved differently.
So my personal feeling is to let her go. The TV ratings and race attendances are still so low that I’m not sure we’ll see any measurable difference. Five years ago, maybe – but I think she made more enemies than friends while she was here. The series may actually do better without her. The IZOD IndyCar Series is on an upswing these days. I think Randy Bernard has a plan that will work, with or without Danica Patrick.