Monday, June 4, 2012

Is Danica Patrick A Superstar or Merely An Overhyped Media Creation?

I love the Indy 500. I know NASCAR has become the more popular auto sport in the United States by a country mile, but I still love the Indy 500. Even during the pathetic, soul-sucking late 1990’s when the newly formed Indy Racing League ruined everything, I still watched the Indy 500. Last week, I was glued to my television, watching a record number of lead changes and a thrilling finish involving a crash. Just as I had been glued to the television a year prior when J.R. Hildebrand blew it all on corner #800 of the race.


danica patrick ass
Yet, the discussion from the media leading up to the event centered on one driver who was a few hundred miles south in NASCAR country. Yep, Danica Patrick dominated the headlines. One day, the stories were about the current Indy Car drivers basically saying “Good riddance” to the departed diva. The next day, the news cycle focused on Danica’s commitment to NASCAR. The morning of the race, the focus shifted on Dancia’s quote that she would love to do an Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double one day.
My thoughts were as follows: who cares?
In 2005, Danica Patrick burst onto the Indy Car scene, finished in the top 5 and generally made the biggest splash the Indy 500 had seen since pre-IRL split. There was no doubt it was a big moment and not just because Danica was pretty or cute or a sex symbol. It was because she was almost won. The “Danica-mania” seemed warranted – she could drive. Could she be the first woman to win the race?
But as the years went on, Danica never won the 500 and never really contended again. She won only one race but was the overwhelming focus of every IRL telecast. The most common phrase heard by those poor unfortunate souls who actually like Indy Car racing – I’m raising my hand here, I’m not ashamed – was, “Let’s check in on Danica.”
It didn’t matter if she was running 2nd, 10th, or 23rd; Danica was the focus of every single telecast. As an Indy Car fan, I must admit, I echo the sentiment of the drivers – good riddance. This year’s Indy 500 was gloriously free of nonstop Danica chatter. It reached its nadir in 2010 when Danica took the lead with 15 laps to go, but obviously had to make another pit stop that the real leaders didn’t have to make. For 4 or 5 laps, the ESPN hype machine went into overdrive, as if they could sucker some poor “casual” fan who mistakenly turned the channel to stay. She pitted. She didn’t win. Life moved on.
Unless, of course, you happen to be a NASCAR fan. Danica has only raced a few NASCAR races, while running the full season on the JV Nationwide Series. I haven’t watched a Nationwide Series race in full this year, or ever, but my impression is that the treatment of Danica hasn’t changed – namely because ESPN is handling the telecast.
I did, however, catch some of the Coca-Cola 600 coverage on Fox and the treatment of Danica was, well, bizarre to say the least. Danica was never remotely a factor, trailing the field most of the night and finishing five laps down. But if you listened to the Fox team, you’d think Danica had taken a giant leap for womankind.
“She’s doing exactly what she needs to do – complete laps.”
“She hasn’t crashed today, that’s good.”
“This is about experience, this is an excellent performance.”
“She keeps making left turns! What an athlete.”

Okay, I only made up one of those quotes but the “kid gloves” treatment was bizarre and stood out dramatically. When Joey Logano made his debut a couple years ago, I can guarantee Darell Waltrip would not have praised him for finishing 35th. We have reached the point where NASCAR is so beholden to Danica – thinking that she can boost sagging ratings and dwindling interest – that she is now be coddled beyond comprehension.

How can a superstar race 5 laps down…and be praised?!?
And here we are about the face the most pressing question about Danica Patrick and one that I don’t think NASCAR is prepared to answer – is Danica Patrick a legit, “move the needle” superstar or a pretty woman who has attracted outsized attention?

For the sponsors, it’s a no-brainer – she’s a superstar. She’s on TV more than any other driver, even if she is 5 laps down. She’s on ESPN constantly. Every prerace show will feature an interview with her. She’s in magazines. There’s a reason Coke Zero just signed her to a big deal and it has absolutely nothing to do with her on-track potential or results.
But what about NASCAR? Despite Danica’s supposed popularity, Indy Car ratings and attendance never notably rose with her as the centerpiece and this year’s Indy 500 ratings – the first without her – actually went up.

NASCAR, unlike Indy, does not need superstars. They have a full stable of household names – Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and the list goes on. Danica cannot dominate NASCAR like she did in Indy by merely existing. At some point, she needs to become a contender. At some point, she needs to finish on the lead lap. At some point, she needs to be good.

There’s no proof that Danica will ever succeed in Indy Car. NASCAR racing is a completely different animal than open-wheel racing. Juan Pablo Montoya destroyed the competition in Indy Car and, at times, Formula 1 – he has never been better than mediocre in NASCAR. Dario Franchitti just won his third Indy 500 and was a spectacular flame out in NASCAR a few years ago.
My opinion carries little weight, nor does the fans’ opinion matter, about how good Danica Patrick is. As long as ESPN devotes endless airtime to the Maxim model, she isn’t going away anytime soon. She’s too valuable to sponsors and she’s too much of a mainstream commodity to be trifled with.

Though this may sound like an attack on Danica, I have no ill will toward her and would love to see her succeed. But we’ve seen in sports that fans can get very agitated when the amount of hype and coverage – hi Tim Tebow – doesn’t match up with that athlete’s ability. Danica has entered that dangerous territory and that’s why more than 50% of the social media mentions about her are negative. It’s not Danica that upsets people. It’s the Danica brand. It’s Danica-mania. It’s ESPN.

Will she ever contend, though? Or will NASCAR fans be forced to suffer the same thing Indy Car fans dealt with for the past 8 years – “And back in 24th place, let’s check in with Danica Patrick.”
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1 comment:

  1. This article isn't entirely accurate. Particularly about her IndyCar career. To make Danica out to be akin to a backmarker in IndyCar is a bit dishonest. Danica finished 5th in the point standings in 2009, 6th the year before that. While this certainly isn't the level of a Dario Franchitti, for instance, keep in mind also that the Andretti Autosport equipment is no match for the Penske/Ganassi equipment either. Tony Kanaan, her former teammate, has won 2 races since 2008, Sebastien Bourdais has won none, and Dan Wheldon, since leaving Ganassi in '09 won once right before his death. The only times a non-Red Car won was when the Red Car was out of contention. Danica won because Dixon and Castronves ran out of gas, Kanaan won in '10 because Franchitti wrecked. Hunter-Raey won in Loudon last year because Franchitti wrecked and the race rain-shortened. Danica held her own considering the equipment that she had.

    With Montoya, Juan Montoya, no disrespect to him, was racing for Chip Ganassi Racing in the late 90's, a team that dominated bigtime during that time. Not taking anything away from him at all but he and Alex Zanardi were in the absolute top-of-the-line equipment. This is not the case in NASCAR. Chip Ganassi Racing's NASCAR team is no where near the level their open-wheel teams are.

    And IndyCar is not better off without Danica. IndyCar's ratings generally have been worse this year than last year and the NASCAR Nationwide Series ratings have improved.

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