With all the talk about massive infrastructure improvements needed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s easy to forget auto racing’s most important commodity—the drivers.
Some hard-core race fans think Speedway officials have lost sight of the fact that driver drama trumps new lights and fancy digital video screens any day, whether in the IndyCar Series or NASCAR.
Last weekend, along came Danica Patrick, showing us that there’s more to building buzz for a race than putting up $20 million worth of lights.
Patrick zoomed into the headlines by grabbing the pole for this Sunday’s Daytona 500. If Patrick can parlay that top qualification into a good race-day performance, it could be just the boost NASCAR needs. Television ratings will be up considerably for the first part of the race.
If Patrick can stay out of trouble and stay up front for much of the race, TV ratings for the race—especially late in the race—could go up 10 percent. That’s a big jump for an event as established and popular as the Daytona 500.
Who better to give the Brickyard 400 a boost than Patrick, a former IndyCar Series driver, who once led the Indianapolis 500? Love her or hate her, Patrick is an attention-grabber, and no one will be rooting harder for her than IMS CEO Jeff Belskus and new Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles.
Maybe Patrick is just a short-term fix for NASCAR. But maybe not. Were Larry Bird and Magic Johnson a short-term fix for the NBA?
If Patrick is able to maintain some momentum, and even snag a victory by mid-season, attendance for the Brickyard 400 could increase at least 20 percent. Does that get the event back to where it was during its salad days in the mid and late 1990s? No.
But it would be a welcome reversal to the ugly attendance slide at the race, held this year on July 28. And Miles and Belskus would take that kind of elixir, short- or long-term, any day.
After all, an additional 20,000 butts in seats at the Brickyard 400 would mean more than another $1.5 million for the Speedway. All at no cost to IMS—or to local taxpayers.