Monday, August 22, 2011

Regarding Danica

If there's one question I've been asked about IndyCar in the last week, it's been "so, what do you think of Danica's move to NASCAR?" Depending on when they've caught me, my response has ranged from a generic shrug to a detailed and nuanced explanation of why I believe it might be for the best.

Of course, we've seen the gamut of responses, from the somewhat giddy speculations on the boon to NASCAR to the good riddances/good luck of her non-fans in IndyCar. I think both extremes miss on what this really means for Danica, NASCAR, and the IZOD IndyCar Series.

First, this announcement highlighted a lot of what is wrong with ESPN (minus Oreo's excellent article on the topic). I don't think there was anyone in the IndyCar paddock who thought Danica wasn't going to Nationwide last year; it was taken as a matter of course. Yet ESPN, which has not exactly endeared itself to IndyCar fans with it's Danica-centric coverage superseding any actual IndyCar happenings, again worked as the arbiter of when news became news. The giddy, celebratory coverage seemed the mark of an entertainment network pushing their newest star, not a sports outlet reporting actual news. Of course, that's not a surprise to any who has watched ESPN lose much of their remaining journalistic integrity as a network over the past decade plus.

Although it's entirely possible GoDaddy will still have a minor sponsorship presence in IndyCar next year, I doubt we'll see them on the level we saw this year. I'm not personally a fan of GoDaddy's advertising style, but of course sponsorship in the series is always a good thing. I do think Andretti Autosport will find sponsorship to compensate--just as they've found names like Sun Drop, DHL, and most recently, Buffalo Wild Wings, which hopefully blossoms into a bigger deal for Michael Andretti's guys.

As for Danica herself, depending on who you talk to, she's either an ice queen or a sweet girl swept up in the intensity of racing. Again, I don't really like caricatures of who or what people are. We see one side or another; very few people are all one thing or all another. I'm sure sometimes she's as nice as can be; other times she's probably abrasive. I always think of times where people have caught me at a bad moment or a stressful time; uniform pleasantness and courtesy probably has not been by M.O. in those cases. I'm sure Danica's no different.

(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
For IndyCar, it doesn't help losing some of the exposure Danica will bring, but there seems to be a feeling that  she had peaked in the series as a driver. She had some wonderful moments, but especially in the past two seasons, she just hasn't looked as sharp, for whatever reasons you may ascribe. Further, the series has three engine manufacturers, a new car, and young talent such as Hinchcliffe, Rahal, and Hildebrand to manage. No, they don't have the star power wattage of Danica, but no one will. The important thing is that they're generally relatable, potentially marketable, and not cookie-cutter corporate cut-outs. The series is building rivalries, it's building up the stories and accomplishments of new faces as well.

For many of the fans, there is perhaps some sadness (though certainly the fanbase has grown more fractured, with her 2010 IndyCar Pole Day moment an audible breaking point), but also some sense of relief despite her popularity. Danicamania made much of the coverage, especially on ABC/ESPN, frustrating to watch. If Danica was running up front, all good and well she would be covered. If she were three laps down in P20, she would still get a healthy chunk of air time, which was frustrating when there was a battle up front. It seemed as if VERSUS began to dial down their coverage of Patrick this year to normalized levels, and the coverage was much improved for it. Does her absence hurt with the casual fan? Very possibly, but the series needs to find other ways to bring in new fans than focusing on one driver. They painted themselves in the corner by the hyper-focus on Danica, but I don't think they've been blind to the fact other avenues of outreach are needed.

Danica will do just fine for herself in NASCAR, whether she wins some races or tools around mid-pack. Andretti Autosport will endure, and will press on in the excitement of the changes 2012 is sure to bring that team. The IZOD Indycar Series will endure, with hopes resting not on Danica, but on a new engine competition, a new car, and a new generation of drivers.

Danica Patrick will leave a mixed legacy in IndyCar, and it might be a while until we really can look back and see the true goods and ills of the Danica Era in American open-wheel racing. For 2012, though, we've got our hands full with plenty of news already. That sort of retrospective is going to have to wait.

1 comment:

  1. I suspect that Danica will have one more try at Indy in 2012. It's already been posited on several blogs, and, unless Tony Stewart decides to put her in a Cup car for Charlotte, (which I think is unlikely, unless it is to KEEP her from doing the 500,) there is every reason to believe she could do it, at least logistically.

    And, I suspect GoDaddy would not mind the exposure in the premier open wheel race in the world.

    Several, including "Crusty" Wallace, are putting the "Whoa down there," on Danica driving in Cup. My question is, "How long will Junior Motorsports and Go Daddy pay the huge money she's going to command to run NNS?" Sure, it's GREAT for the Nationwide Series. They need the "PR bomb" that she can provide to spur that series. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been watching the selected races in which she has appeared.

    But, if you listened to Mr. Know-It-All Wallace and his former basketball-playing compadre from Chapel Hill, they seemed to think that that's as far as she should go for the foreseeable future. This in spite of her progress in the secondary series, which, considering her limited schedule, has been pretty damn good.

    When you consider the "bubble" she's been living in since she hit INDYCAR in 2005, I think she's done a pretty respectable job managing it all. No, she's not always pleasant, and maybe a little over-dramatic; but I can think of a lot of times that a LOT of drivers (A. J. Foyt comes to mind,) have not been pleasant.