Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Patrick: Threat or Inspiration?
I wrote the book on Danica Patrick, or perhaps more accurately the unauthorized biography. Having watched her race since her earliest days in IndyCar, trust me on this. Once she starts driving NASCAR stockers, Patrick is going to surprise some naysayers.
As an IndyCar rookie, when Patrick got her Panoz chassis sideways in Turn 1 during her first qualifying lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, then saved it and completed four consecutive laps at 227 mph, it was enough to convince this writer of her car control and nerve.
I wasn't alone. Sam Garrett, the manager of Dallara's chassis program in the Indy Racing League, was one of those who watched that day in 2005 from the pit road as the nose on Patrick's car planted a little too firmly in Turn 1, causing her rear wheels to begin chattering toward the outside wall.
"If you lift in that situation, you're going to spin and back into the outside wall," said Garrett. "That's the safest thing you can do in that situation. If you keep your foot in it and correct too much you can go straight into the wall. It's very, very dangerous."
Patrick kept her foot in it, corrected and has been a racing sensation ever since.
Later that year, when MBI Publishing Co. called to ask me to write the book on how Patrick went from beating the boys in karting to nearly winning the Indy 500. I was happy to oblige.
From the beginning, Patrick has been a threat -- or an inspiration --because she's good and capable of beating the guys in major league races. Like drag racer Shirley Muldowney or Pike's Peak winner Michele Mouton before her, Patrick scares the bewilikers out of those who really need racing's victory lane to be a bastion of manliness.
There's been a double standard from the beginning. Team owner Rick Hendrick recently lauded passionate outbursts by drivers and many a writer complains there's not enough of that in the sponsor-driven realm of racing. Fans often agree with this line of thinking. But if a woman like Patrick gets hacked off and shows it, well, it's something other than passionate, or appreciated.
If Patrick gets an opportunity because she can drive and has a unique appeal, she's trading on the female good looks and identity she was born with. If the son of a famous driver gets an opportunity because he can drive and the name he inherited from his family, he's sustaining motor racing's tradition.
If Patrick loses the Indy 500 as happened in her rookie year of 2005 because she ran short of fuel after taking the lead with 11 laps to go, nobody remembers. But if she beats the IndyCar field in Japan because she was fast enough to catch Helio Castroneves when he was running short of fuel, everybody wants to give her an asterisk.
Alas, enough of the usual points of discussion about Patrick, so many of them disengaged from the facts and involving highly emotional males who can't stand the prospect of a woman winning major league races. At least we're out of the frame of announcers patronizing her as a novelty act. (Although give some of the TV knuckleheads time on that subject in the coming NASCAR season.)
What I like about Patrick's current scenario is the ongoing prospect of drivers racing in different disciplines. For the past three decades, there have been regular lamentations about the difficulties drivers face if they move between Indy cars to stock cars and sports cars -- or Formula One -- due to artificial barriers imposed by sponsors, team owners, manufacturers and sanctioning bodies.
People have wanted to see latter-day versions of drivers like Andretti, Foyt, Clark and Gurney show what they can do in a variety of machinery just as these legendary drivers and their brethren did in the 1960's and 1970's.
By racing simultaneously in the Indy Racing League and a major NASCAR touring series, Patrick is currently helping to blaze a trail first taken by Tony Stewart.
We've also seen stock car drivers and IndyCar drivers racing regularly in sports cars at major events such as the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Sebring 12-hour and the Petit Le Mans. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Scott Dixon have regularly taken their championship status on the road, so to speak. That's another good thing.
The sport of motor racing in general would be a lot more fun and entertaining if more drivers got out of their usual disciplines. They might even become better drivers. Everybody's a winner in these scenarios -- which is why team owners, sponsors, manufacturers and sanctioning bodies do what they can to discourage drivers from sharing the wealth.
What would it be like, for example, to see Kyle Busch, race in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day? Or to see Busch drive in the Pike's Peak Hill Climb? This is the same driver, of course, who had to turn down a test in Toyota's F1 car last year, because NASCAR insisted he attend the Nationwide Series banquet.
Sometimes it turns out ugly, such as Carl Edwards' crash on the pace lap of the Grand-Am Rolex Series race in Montreal last summer.
Drivers who cross into another branch of racing are always putting themselves at risk of embarrassment or the humbling circumstances of learning anew. They rarely get credit for the risks they assume and often as not things don't work out. Sam Hornish Jr. has gone from IndyCar champ and Indy 500 winner to the most second-guessed talent in motor racing outside of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I like Patrick's decision to try NASCAR while simultaneously trying to win the IndyCar championship and the Indy 500. Needless to say, it's been an arduous free agent process to obtain a contract from Michael Andretti and Honda enabling her to do both. It's not a publicity stunt or a strictly an exercise in increased income. It's about a passion for racing, despite the many risks so often involved and the arduous battles just to get a chance.
Quote of the Week: Among the keynote speakers at the recent Motor Sports Business Forum North America last week was Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of the International Speedway Corporation.
She stated that ISC has positioned itself to benefit from the current downturn in the economy, which has adversely affected ISC's business over-all in the short term.
"Whenever there is a situation like this, it has also provided an opportunity for us," she said. "We've taken over a half a million of our tickets and re-priced or restructured them. We've taken some of the tickets that were previously bundled and created new packages where the bundling wasn't as prominent. We find that about 2/3 of the people that are buying our newly structured tickets are brand-new buyers."
France Kennedy added that new ticket buyers often become repeat ticket buyers. "Our history tells us that if we can get them to that one event, that the product sells itself. Our challenge is getting them to that first event, and then it goes from there. We're accomplishing that through different opportunities and value pricing."
Needless to say, the presence of Danica Patrick at Daytona will continue to bring in new ticket buyers.
Sports Car Revival? There were several signs this past week that sports car racing's organizers have learned how to weather downturns in the economy. As any experienced fan can attest, categories like Group C, IMSA GTP and World Sports Cars have disappeared due to the withdrawal of manufacturers in the face of recessions. Other categories before them have gone down a similar path.
This time around, despite two of America's three major auto makers going into bankruptcy during one of the worst recessions on record for manufacturers worldwide, sports car racing is holding its own. The Pirelli tire test days for the Rolex 24 at Daytona drew a solid field of cars, team owners and drivers. The organizers of the Le Mans 24-hour last week announced its Intercontinental Cup, which will link the series running under the Le Mans rules in Europe, North America and Asia. Already Audi has committed to the 2010 version.
There are other more subtle signs. During the annual remarks about the past racing season, Porsche's Michael Macht, CEO, hinted that Audi's participation at Le Mans may not preclude the Porsche brand's participation as well.
"Motorsport is a central element of our company's DNA," he said. "And it will hold an important role in the future. I'm not the only one at Porsche to be tempted to race for overall victory again at the Le Mans 24 hour race."
And finally, Simon Pagenaud was named as David Brabham's co-driver in Highcroft Racing's Acura, another sign Honda is looking carefully at racing at Le Mans under the new rules in 2011. Pagenaud, who last year drove Peugeots when he wasn't racing for Gil de Ferran's now disbanded factory Acura team, is one of the most sought after sports car drivers in the world. The Frenchman, evidently, believes there's an Acura in sports car racing's future.
See ya! ...At the races.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org