Danica Patrick's long and winding road pits in at Nascar
Barely two years ago, Formula One was abuzz about a possible petite, long-haired addition to its driver ranks. Danica Patrick was considering moving from the United States-based IndyCar Series to the globetrotting F1.
It made some sense. Patrick is hardly a home bird: at 16, she left her family in America's heartland to race in the United Kingdom's Formula Ford circuit. Her career aspiration was to steer the sleek, high-tech, open-wheeled vehicles of Sir Jackie Stewart and Michael Schumacher.
After her stint in the UK, Patrick circled back and launched her grown-up career with IndyCar, earning the Rookie of the Year title in 2005. As a celebrity, she broke land-speed records over seven seasons, noted by her No 3 ranking among the nation's most popular women athletes in a recent Harris Poll.
In time, though, marketing potential became almost exhausted. She won slightly more than you or me (once, 2008 in Japan) and contended infrequently. Other racing venues were explored. So, any day now, Patrick is expected to announce a switch to ... Nascar?
The little lady is spurning the glitz and glamour of open-wheel racing for the relatively plodding, closed-wheeled cars whose ancestors ran illegal moonshine on the back roads of the Deep South.
What happened with F1?
For starters, she probably realised that it offers no sure formula for success. Most drivers consider it more taxing physically than other formats, which puts the 5ft 2ins (1.57m), 99 pound (45kg) Patrick at a disadvantage. No woman has stomped on the accelerator in a grand prix since Italy's Giovanna Amati in 1992.
Her statistics speak the harsh truth. On IndyCar road and street courses, which more closely resemble F1 layouts, Patrick has managed only four top-five finishes and an average placement of 16th. On other designs, there have been 16 top fives and an average of ninth in 71 outings.
Nobody is shooing Patrick away from IndyCar. But the series has replaced a few speedway races with road and street circuits, a trend that disfavours her. Her driving skills seem more suited to the ovals of Nascar.
Besides, what was once uncommon has become the norm. The Indianapolis 500 field in May featured four women, denying her the distinction of being gender-unique.
If more is better, Patrick's pending lane change at least should please her accountants and promoters.
Nascar offers more races, more spectators and television viewers, plenty more attention, and endorsement opportunities galore with a predominantly male audience for whom women competitors remain a novelty. Not one has ever run a complete Nascar series.
Danica Patrick Inc, according to Forbes, earned US$12 million (Dh44m) during the last fiscal year, the third-highest female athlete worldwide. Race winnings accounted for a small slice.
Putting money aside, it is a logical move because Patrick might be wearing out her welcome with some of her IndyCar peers. By most accounts, she is liked and respected for non-diva behaviour.
But, even with moderate success, media and fans flock to her at the expense of the more accomplished drivers. Resentment among teams that know the way to the winner's circle is unavoidable.
Wisely, she is not jumping immediately into Nascar's top-rung series, the Sprint Cup. An entire year on its B-level, known as Nationwide, awaits, with a big boys' event thrown in here and there.
The plan to graduate full-time to the Sprint Cup in 2013 is built on patience, a virtue that at times has been elusive with Patrick. Next year, she turns 30. Maybe the milestone will bless her with an understanding that this is a tough game, particularly for flyweights, and name/face recognition does not guarantee success.
She already has sampled Nationwide, with a half-dozen top-10 finishes in 20 races. This gradual transition is the proper course, especially to break the ice with a fresh set of drivers.
Reaction has been open-arms so far, from "it is really good for us" (Kevin Harvick) to "this is great" (Matt Kenseth).
Nascar officials would throw a ticker-tape parade for her. The sport, even though it is swamping IndyCar by most popularity gauges, is stuck in second gear, with attendance and interest flat. For now, her presence in Nationwide could catch the eyes of the curious, who might tune back in to Sprint Cup the following day.
How Patrick's swimsuit photographs and risque advertisements with her chief sponsor, GoDaddy.com, will play is uncertain. Though Indy racing car pioneer Janet Guthrie has denounced Patrick's marketing approach, most see someone who, at worst, has stepped up to the line of bad taste without crossing it.
Equally uncertain is how she will fare in those 400 and 500-mile spins. Nascar drivers might not carry the cachet of the F1s, but converts are not assured a smooth ride.
Juan Pablo Montoya ranks a modest 22nd in Sprint Cup standings. Scott Speed might be jealous: dropped by his team, he has been limited to three starts this year.
For Patrick, it is time for a move, and not an overseas one. As they say in America: you go, girl.
Published: August 24, 2011 04:00 AM