Op-Ed: Danica’s future, IndyCar’s salvation and, sadly, NASCAR (with F1 thrown in)

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Excuse a quick dive into a couple of other racing series: the dominant form in America, NASCAR, and its would-be competitor, IndyCar.

We’ll circle it around to Formula 1, though, I promise.

IndyCar’s fairly new boss, Randy Bernard, has suggested the unthinkable: His series could survive without prominent poster girl Danica Patrick.

I know, I’m not sure if I believe it, either, but let’s hear him out:

“Anyone would tell you that if she’s going to be a huge asset she is going to have to win,” Bernard told Reuters. “She knows that.

“There would be a little deflation at first (if Patrick were to leave) but the series needs winners and champions and people who are going to grow our sport.

“The series would go on, we have too much momentum right now. But for sure she is a tremendous asset.”

For those who haven’t been following Danica other than through her commercials, she’s spent this season racing in IndyCar as always (albeit with significantly less success than in recent years) while dabbling in lower-rung NASCAR events. Here she explains her thinking:

“I wanted to race NASCAR, I wanted to try it out, I wanted to experience it and I have the ability to,” Patrick said ahead of this weekend’s Toronto Indy. “It’s humbling but really rewarding. I’m starting to figure it out.

“It is like starting over, it is all coming at me.

“This year and next year will be just like this and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Now, I’m not sure if she meant to, but there she gives IndyCar a nice time frame for worrying. And probably a good deadline to have a “Danica’s leaving Plan B” in place. Because IndyCar will need it if she goes.

Just not as much as one would have thought even a year ago. Because the bloom is starting to fade from this rose. Here’s Reuters again:

Once the undisputed darling of American motorsport, Patrick has watched her popularity slip during a frustrating season that saw her booed at the Indianapolis 500 after blaming her poor performance on her team’s car preparation.

The only woman to reach Victory Lane in an IndyCar race with a win at Motegi in 2008, Patrick has been getting more mileage out of her racy commercials lately than her results.

Patrick has posted just one top five result this season, a runner-up finish at Texas Motor Speedway. Her stock car efforts have been less impressive, a 24th place at a second-tier NASCAR event last weekend her crowning achievement.

Americans, as much as if not more than just about anyone, love a winner, back a winner, only care about a winner. (Quick digression: You World Cup/football fans out there who think the sport needs American support… simple way to do it. Let the U.S. win the World Cup. Probably twice in a row to make sure it sticks. Otherwise it won’t crack America’s top 5 sports.)

And Danica’s popularity, I think, while obviously benefitting from the sex appeal (which is overstated since Danica gains a few points on the 1-10 beauty scale by being “out of place” in a race car), was tied to the promise of success. Her showings at the Indianapolis 500 tantalized fans with a potential victory. But it hasn’t happened, and it is looking less likely to ever happen, Motegi aside.

In other words, what would have been a crushing blow to IndyCar will, I think, now only be a pretty major one, but one that the series can survive. And one good “Plan B” to have already exists. Their names are Simona De Silvestro, Sarah Fisher and, dare I say it, Milka Duno. But really, mostly, as much as I hate to admit it, De Silvestro. (Hate to admit because I’d like Fisher to be in the mix.)

In De Silvestro, IndyCar has another promising young female driver, one who is showing signs of victory or, at least, serious competitiveness. Unless she wins, she won’t be placarded all over every race like Danica has been, but she could fill the hole that Danica would leave.

Plus, there’s this upside. Danica has so blanketed the promotion of IndyCar that other “stars” — drivers who have won and are winning — have been lost. Maybe Helio Castroneves is the exception, but guys like Scott Dixon, Will Power and Dario Franchitti are among a list of “other IndyCar drivers” thanks to the omni-presence of Danica.

Her leaving is a chance for all these drivers, and others, to fill the void. IndyCar just needs to make sure it is planning for that eventuality.

The big question remains, though: Will Danica leave? Here’s where the promised F1 tie-in appears.

Danica has to win. Her brand is going to continue its downward slide if she doesn’t. (For those of you who like her only for her racy commercials, this might be what you should be hoping for as we all know the inverse correlation between going from A-list star to B-list to C-list and the raciness of things in which they are involved.) And former F1 drivers offer her a pretty daunting picture of life in NASCAR.

Jacques Villenueve, former champ and Indy 500 winner, hasn’t been able to make runs in NASCAR stick. Juan Pablo Montoya, too, is bumping around with an OK career but not one that would meet the measure Danica needs. Even Franchitti, a double Indy 500 winner, went to NASCAR and came back to IndyCar.

Those are drivers we’d all likely rate higher than Danica. Now, maybe her talents will translate to NASCAR more than theirs. And maybe as a result it would be the right move for her. NASCAR certainly is a bigger stage.

But she hasn’t shown that yet. And probably won’t be able to without going “all in” and running in a tin top instead of the open-wheel cars.

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