(by Bob Kravitz indystar.com 9-9-09)
When Danica Patrick makes the full-time leap to NASCAR -- and she will be a stock-car regular no later than 2012 -- where will that leave the IndyCar Series?
As opposed to next to nowhere, which is where it currently resides in the American sports consciousness.
Patrick's eventual defection to NASCAR won't kill the sport, but it will deal the open-wheel types a painful and possibly even fatal blow. The folks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway don't want to hear this, but without Patrick -- their one and only marquee talent and celebrity -- IndyCar is as insignificant as celebrity billiards.
Even now, with Patrick competing full time and producing her best season in this series, almost nobody is paying attention. There are three drivers vying for the points title with two races remaining (Motegi and Homestead), and America couldn't care a whit about any of the three.
Nothing personal against three nice guys and accomplished drivers, but outside of the gearhead population, who can tell the difference between Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon? Which one's the Aussie and which one's the Kiwi? Scotsman Dario Franchitti, the third driver in the mix, is married to Ashley Judd, which is interesting for about 10 minutes -- unless, of course, you're married to Ashley Judd, and then it's interesting for far longer.
It doesn't matter if the IndyCar Series does ovals, road courses, street courses or competes on the moon, without personalities, without compelling stories that engage fans, it is doomed to eternal status as a micro-niche sport. They could put push-to-pass buttons or rocket boosters on the backs of those cars, but without personalities like Patrick, casual fans won't pay attention.
Patrick's exit will put the brakes on all the momentum the series gained when unification with Champ Car finally happened. This is even worse than the PGA Tour losing Tiger Woods, or Roger Federer retiring from tennis. Those sports have other marketable commodities; the IndyCar Series has, um, well . . . never mind.
Without Danica, the IndyCar Series has nothing, and nobody, to sell. Marco Andretti has a great name and pedigree, but he hasn't won much of anything. Graham Rahal also has the name and pedigree and is an unquestioned talent, but to this point, he hasn't been a podium regular. If the series is fortunate, one of those two young men will emerge by the time Patrick departs. But even then, they can't begin to demand the attention Patrick brings to the sport.
The word of Danica's eventual exit comes at a time when the series' leadership is in flux and the economy is in tatters. How do you sell a Patrick-less IndyCar Series?
There is still no title sponsor.
They are wedded for nine more years to a network, Versus, that does a great job artistically but isn't seen in nearly enough homes. And now there is a fight between Versus and DirecTV, which could mean the loss of tens of millions more homes.
As Patrick's very public courtship of NASCAR plays out before the cameras, where's IndyCar's leadership? Where is Jeff Belskus, wining and dining Patrick while subtly (and rhetorically) twisting her arm? Would this happen if Tony George were still in charge?
If Woods were making noise about leaving the PGA Tour to play pro baseball, I can promise you tour commissioner Tim Finchem, a cadre of sponsors and several golfers would be camped out on the porch of Tiger's Florida estate.
In the end, there might not be anything anybody can do to stop Patrick from going the good-old-boys route, but somebody at least has to try -- or make a good show of trying.
The question of whether Patrick can make it in NASCAR is immaterial to the point of the column, but we'll address it anyway.
The answer is, yes.
At the very least, she will be given every opportunity to succeed and there's no question she's tough and single-minded enough to push her way through any early adversity.
True, the stock cars are bigger, heavier and more unwieldy than Indy cars. And the 36-race schedule stretches over nearly 10 months, which is double the IndyCar Series race schedule.
But Tony Stewart did it. Juan Pablo Montoya did it. Sam Hornish Jr. is slowly improving. People make it sound like she's wrestling alligators. She's fitter than most of the men out there. This just in: Stewart is not exactly a beacon of fitness.
True, it takes time to get up to speed, but Patrick is willing to run the Nationwide Series, drive the trucks, play NASCAR's minor leagues while preparing for the big leagues.
This is a very tough-minded young woman. She isn't simply doing this for the acclaim or the money, although those don't hurt. She's doing this because it's another challenge.
Anyway, can you blame her?
More and more, the IndyCar Series feels like a Triple-A affiliate to NASCAR's major league. Who can blame Stewart for bolting in the late 1990s? Or Hornish? Or Montoya, who went from CART to Formula One to NASCAR?
Basically, the IndyCar Series has two years to wean itself off Danica-mania and establish a presence and personality independent of its biggest star.
Good luck with that.