Free at last

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on August 25, 2011 1:06 pm
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When I was in high school, the mythical ultimate prank was shaving cream in a hot car.

The accomplish this highly destructive job, a person would freeze a can of shaving cream until the contents were solid and then slice the can away such that all that was left was a solid block of shaving cream.  Once an unsuspecting friend had left his car windows open on a hot day, the block of shaving cream was thrown into the car and left to expand, creating a massive, disastrous mess.

None of my friends actually had the audacity to ruin someone else’s car interior, so we never figured out if it worked. But the premise certainly made sense.  The theory was simple: take a product that is highly expansive, constrict it inside a tightly sealed container, change it such that it cannot expand as it should, remove the bindings, and watch it grow.

Sounds a lot like what should happen with the IZOD IndyCar Series in the post-Danica era, doesn’t it?

When Danica Patrick burst onto the scene in 2005, her presence brought a desperately needed shot of enthusiasm to the sport.  Still mired in the Great Open-wheel Civil War, the Indy Racing League side of the fence had scored several decisive victories over the previous few years with major teams like Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, Rahal, Fernandez, and others switching series along with engine manufacturers Honda and Toyota.  Momentum was clearly on the side of the IRL, but it was still having a difficult time reaching the common fan.  Suddenly, in walked this 23-year old, 5-foot tall, 100-pound dynamo that completely changed the game.

After taking a mighty wallop from the turn 1 wall in her first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Patrick arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May 2005 and quickly showed that she was a force to be reckoned with.  She set fastest lap times on many occasions during the first week and was a legitimate contender for the pole position — she would have earned the prestigious spot if not for a bobble in the first turn of her first lap.  After starting fourth, Danica survived a pair of rookie mistakes to become the first woman ever to lead the Indianapolis 500 before eventually finishing fourth.  In the following days, the majority of the media attention fell not on champion Dan Wheldon or runner-up Vitor Meira.  From national newspaper headlines to the cover of Sports Illustrated, Danicamania was in full swing overnight.

Thus were sown the first seeds of resentment and, quite honestly, the beginning of the end.

While most fans were happy to have the attention Danica brought with her, the charm started to wear thin after a confrontation with Jaques Lazier at California later in 2005 and her much-publicized stomp down pit road after running out of fuel at Michigan on the last lap in 2006.  Before long, the driver that was once heralded as a role model for young women was increasingly seen as a marketing gimmick whose not particularly impressive on-track results failed to back up her off-track diva attitude.  (Back-to-back appearances in the 2008 and 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions did little to quell these sentiments.)

From a personal standpoint, I was a big fan of Danica’s through the early part of her career.  I closely followed her on-track performances, and I defended her by pointing out that she was being held unfairly to a standard to which male drivers were not being held.  I didn’t care that she had a bit of an attitude.  I liked that she wanted to be fierce on the track and yet still be a girly-girl off of it.  I didn’t expect her to change the type of person she is just because she drives a race car.  The photo spreads didn’t bother me, either — I wasn’t looking for her to be a role model, and I thought it was more exposure for the sport.  Things were going fine for several years, and I continued to support her on and off the track.  INDYCAR was good for Danica, and — perhaps more importantly — Danica was good for INDYCAR.

But then came 2009.

We all knew it was going to happen.  It wasn’t a question of if; it was only a question of when.  No sooner had Danica crossed the yard of bricks in 2005 to become the highest-placing female ever at the Indianapolis 500 than did the rumors start.  When is Danica going to NASCAR?  With NASCAR’s ratings and popularity starting to settle back down after peaking through the middle part of the decade, the series was looking for a new star and, more specifically, a new demographic.  Nobody fit that bill like Danica Patrick.

By early 2009 (which just happened to be a contract year for Danica), NASCAR’s courting of Patrick was in full swing.  For months on end, during the bulk of the season, questions about Danica’s future lingered and consumed obscene amounts of media coverage.  INDYCAR was held hostage during the will-she-or-won’t-she saga as Danica reaped the benefits of constantly being in the headlines.  By the time Indianapolis was finished, most people were already tired of the drama, but a decision was still many months away.  If Danica’s self-serving attitude hadn’t worn on the nerves of the fan base by that point, it certainly had by the time it was announced in late 2009 that she would split time between INDYCAR and NASCAR in 2010.  We were treated to a Danica off-season last year, but we knew all along that a) 2011 was going to be another year like 2009 with excessive discussion about Danica’s future, and b) her sponsors and marketing company, IMG, were going to take her to NASCAR full-time regardless of any indecisiveness Danica might display publicly.

With today’s formal announcement of her full-time move to NASCAR in 2012, the media obsession can finally conclude and the questions regarding Danica’s future can be put to rest.  Though nearly everyone associated with the IZOD IndyCar Series knew that Danica’s departure was a foregone conclusion, the coverage afforded her decision continued to be a distraction to much larger and more important issues with the Series.  Now that she is as good as gone, focus can be shifted to other matters, and other drivers, that have for too long been pushed behind the resented veil of mediocrity.

If this seems overly harsh on Danica, I don’t really mean it to be.  I actually do like Danica and have taken my share of heat for being an apologist for her over the years, and I think she has generally been good for INDYCAR racing (critical at times, actually) during a period when the Series was struggling for a public face.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, it became less about racing and more about promoting Danica Patrick.  Patrick’s presence for the past couple of years has been like the shaving cream can that holds the rest of the contents back and results in a highly pressurized atmosphere.

There is no doubt that Danica certainly has some talent.  She has proven herself many times to be a more than capable driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series.  She isn’t in the first cut of the best drivers in the Series, but she definitely isn’t in the bottom cut, either.  Her talent — not always her team — put her in position to win a few races, and nobody accidently finishes fifth in the season points standings as she did in 2010.  Sadly, the more attention that was paid to Danica, the more crushing the void that engulfed the rest of the Series became, making the drivers, the events, and the Series a prisoner to Danica’s mainstream popularity.  Now that the constricting canister has been removed, the rest of the contents are free to grow and expand.  Maybe, just maybe, some of the great personalities of this sport will get a chance to shine publicly and connect with fans who may never have known anything of INDYCAR racing but Danica Patrick.  Maybe, just maybe, success and fame will find their way to an INDYCAR driver that doesn’t already have a foot out the door.

Had Danica departed the Series after the 2009 season, her loss would have had a significantly greater impact.  Thankfully, a great surge in momentum since that time has built the IZOD IndyCar Series into a much bigger brand than just the Danica Patrick Support Show.  With the IZOD partnership already endeavoring to make other drivers household names and with Randy Bernard steering the ship, the post-Danica era for INDYCAR looks bright.  Her loss will no doubt result in the short-term loss of some viewers, but in the long term, the shaving cream is finally unleashed from the binds of its constraint and will soon grow as it has long aspired to do.

*

(By the way: according to snopes.com, the shaving cream trick is not nearly as destructive as we had hoped so many years ago! )

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