Saturday, August 27, 2011

OK --So She's Leaving: What Now?

There are three reasons why I have not taken to my blog to cover the exit of Danica Patrick from the INDYCAR scene: First, living in South Carolina, we've been a little concerned about another "woman" who's been "flirting " with the East Coast: Irene. She has, for the most part, passed my area with minimal damage, although I will have to spend most of tomorrow cleaning her "droppings" (mostly leaves and small pine boughs,) from my swimming pool.

Second, I've been making some changes to my business to try and streamline it and make it run more efficiently. As summer winds down, I have to put in place the systems and people that will allow me to move quickly when things pick up after the post Labor Day "snooze." This is also why I don't post too many pieces during the summer, when, in a tourist market, I'm just a bit busy.

The third reason is that I've been having too much fun reading what has been posted in the blogosphere, since the "official" announcement confirmed the worst kept secret in sports. Let's just say, LeBron James' "Decision" it wasn't. Everyone who knows anything about racing knew this was coming, and, as they would say on CNBC, "The markets have factored it in."

The way some have reacted to this no-news announcement is reminiscent of a guy who's been dumped by a pretty girl. "I'm glad she's gone," and "Don't let the doorknob hit ya'," I've seen more than a few times. "Maybe this will give Simona (or Pippa) more air-time," has been another common theme. Oh, yeah, the INDYCAR "haters" have been out there too, predicting this would be the death knell of the IRL (which hasn't been the IRL for a couple of years now.)

There have been others who have spent volumes decrying her talent as a driver (or lack thereof,) bemoaning the fact that she has only one win and that because she won that race by conserving fuel, she was somehow undeserving of that. (Sounds an awful lot like the jilted lover, claiming that, "She really wasn't any good in bed, anyway.")

So, you get the message. Here's my take.

1. Danica Patrick is a pretty good race driver.
Here are some facts: In INDYCAR, she rarely fails to finish. In a series where any "contact" with another car is liable to be terminal, she brings the equipment home in one piece. (And if you don't think that is important, ask Kevin Kalkhoven or Jimmy Vasser, owners of the car driven by "Mr. Safer Barrier" himself, E. J. Viso.) On an oval, she's quite likely to be in the top 5-8 slots throughout the race. Her road/street skillls have improved dramatically, and she actually has a couple of top 10's this year. Her team at Andretti has figured ways to get her there with pit strategy and she has "held serve" when she's gotten there.

There are a lot of not-very-knowledgable fans out there who continually say, "If Sarah Fisher had had the luxury of Danica's equipment, she would have done much better." Absolutely NOT true. I like Sarah as much as anyone in INDYCAR and have rooted for her since Danica was a teenager. I suspect, however, that if you asked her in a moment of complete honesty, even Sarah might concur. My premise is that Sarah, when everything was perfect, could bring a car home in the top 10. Danica, when things go just right will put it in the top 3 and challenge for the win. My guess is that the determination, grit, feisty-ness, and "attitude" that grinds on some with Danica is precisely what makes her better.

2. SOME anti-Danica bias is gender based.
Does Danica have a huge ego? Sure, that's probably why she has had the success that she's had. When we all heard A. J. Foyt tell the crowd at Indy, "The car was crap, so I parked it," most of us loved it. If Danica says the same thing, she's immediately labelled a "whiner."

We have all heard male drivers throw their team under the bus at one time or another. Tony Stewart has done it, Kyle Busch has done it, Dario Franchitti has done it. Hell, A. J. Foyt did it, even when he owned the team. Point is, there are folks who react differently when it comes from Danica, (a/k/a "Whanica.")

When Kyle Bush and (insert driver here) go at it, no one even blinks. When Danica storms down pit lane after being knocked out of Indy by Ryan Briscoe's idiocy, everyone gasps and make fun of her. Hell, NASCAR guys come to BLOWS nd don't get that much attention. After their "spat" at Mid-Ohio, Milka Duno is lucky that Danica didn't knock her into next week: That's how seriously she takes racing. Had that been Smoke and Kyle Busch it would have been a non-issue, a quick 5 second blast on Sportscenter.

3. Danica will eventually do well in NASCAR.
In spite of what Kyle Petty says, Danica, based on her limited schedule, has done remarkably well in the Nationwide Series. Kyle Petty found his niche when he got out of the car and moved to the broadcast booth. (As an aside, a group of friends of mine and I used to have a "pool" that we ran weekly amongst the 5 of us. In that pool, the "nightmare scenario" was that you would get down to the end of the draw and get "stuck" with Kyle Petty. He has zero room to talk about people being out of their depth in NASCAR.)

Rusty "Know-it all" Wallace has said that the second tier series is Danica's limit for the foreseeable future, a statement with which his compadre, that seasoned NASCAR expert, Brad Daugherty concurred. Ok. Rusty Wallace has some credibility, but when was the last time that Mr. Daugherty was seen driving a race car? That's right, never. Neither has taken into account the fact that she has had 3 top 10's in the Nationwide Series in her last 7 starts, and easily could have won at Daytona in July, all while running a very limited schedule.

In NASCAR, she is still a novelty. No female has ever had any success running with the "good ol' boys." If she wins a race or two, "Danicamania" will be in full effect once again.

Her going to the Nationwide series is just what that circuit needs: an injection of excitement when attendance and tv ratings were on the slide. I have to admit, I have watched a few NNS races this year when Danica's been in the field and I NEVER used to watch the second tier series.
The question in my mind is, "How long will she be satisfied with running in 'the minors.'" She's going to run 8 or so Cup races the first year, Daytona being the first, (assuming she can qualify.) Bear in mind that Indy 500 champions and series champions Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish, Jr., and Juan Pablo Montoya have had less-than-distinguished NASCAR careers, so the "bar" for success in the tintops is not exactly set high.

It would not surprise me to see her finish in the top 10 in points next year in NNS. Given the opportunity to run and practice in the cabs exclusively, her learning curve will be shortened considerably. 3 (and easily could have been 5,) top 10's in her last 7 starts is better than a LOT of NNS drivers. 'Nuff said.

4. Her next appearance at Indy will be in NASCAR.
Not necessarily. Consider this: The Indianapolis 500, in spite of what a lot of the haters say, is still the preeminent auto race in America. It is the one INDYCAR race that can move the needle. Randy Bernard knows this. And, believe me, so does Bob Parsons, "Mr. GoDaddy," (maybe more appropriately, "Mr. Sugar Daddy?")

The 500, for all its recent woes, consistently out-rates the NASCAR CocaCola 600, which is in prime time. With a starting time of noon, most of the west coast is still sipping coffee when the race begins at 16th and Georgetown. In Hawai'i they're still in bed, but Indy still draws steady (and improving) ratings and (with only one exception I can think of,) surpasses the 600.

At the same venue, the Brickyard 400 is so attendance-challenged that NASCAR has decided to run all of their weekend racing at IMS next year, and this years' Brickyard 400 was a festival of exposed aluminum.

The viewership and attendance of the 500 is much more diverse, and I can't imagine Bob Parsons willingly abandoning the exposure in that race that Danica gives him and his company. If, as many claim, "It's all about the money," look for Ms. Patrick to make at least one more try at the 500 in 2012. It's a win-win-win for everyone involved. Bernard, Danica, and Parsons ALL get something if she does run again, particularly if she's competitive. And when has she NOT been competitive at Indy?

Michael Andretti said, in his presser, that anytime she wants to come back, she's welcome, and we all know Michael is usually good for at least one "one-off" at Indy every year. He seems to be aligned with Chevy, as does Penske, but, (at least according to Michael Andretti,) she is contractually obligated to run for Andretti if she runs at Indy. Danica herself has not foreclosed the possibility, although the one thing that may work against her is the new car/enigine configuration. The new INDYCAR will be, as some have put it, "wicked fast," with the return of the trubvechargers, and it may be that she just won't do it because of the "bugs" that will have to be worked out with the new car.

5. Danica leaving is the final straw for INDYCAR.
Maybe, if she had left two or three years ago, that might have been true. INDYCAR, under Randy Bernard, appears to have developed some momentum, and the changes with the new car for 2012 and the optional aero kits the following year should help carry that momentum forward.

As many have pointed out, the novelty of women in INDYCARs is long gone, as is the novelty of having one be competitive, thanks in large part to Danica Patrick. There are, however, several storylines developing in the wings. Simona DiSilvestro put on the "guts" show for the ages at Indy this year, suffering a bad crash and then putting an ill-handling "pork chop" of a backup car solidly in the field on the first day of qualifying. Although her season has been marred by a seeming lack of confidence lately, if she can pull it together in the new car, she'll be someone to watch going forward, as will Pippa Mann, who already has shown she can handle a blog almost as well as she handles an INDYCAR.

In fact, Danica's departure may lead to INDYCAR becoming a "brand" again. By necessity, others will have to step up and establish themselves as stars, and the good news is that there are any number of young drivers in the wings to fulfill that promise, much moreso than a couple of years ago.

Finally, let's just put it out there. As long as there is a racing facility at 16th and Georgetown in Indianapolis, there will be some form of INDYCAR racing. But the big complaint about the INDYCAR series has been the lack of recognizable, particularly American, stars. With Graham Rahal now seemingly secure at Ganassi, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter Reay both grabbing a win at Andretti, and J. R. Hildebrand nearly winning the 500 for Panther, that future seems much brighter than it did a few years ago. Thus, Danica's overall importance to the series is somewhat diminshed.

A lot of us who are true race fans will be watching both Danica and INDYCAR.

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