Danica Patrick stock success raises more IRL questions

February 10, 2010
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Danica Patrick is a real enigma for the Indy Racing League.
 
I’ve long pondered her real affect on the open-wheel series.

And I must admit, I’ve vacillated on this one. Is she the savior that many say she is? Or is she just one of 20 or so regular IRL drivers that are having trouble inspiring race fans to watch on TV or actually show up at the track as a live spectator.

My answer: It’s really difficult to tell.

The results from the Feb. 6 ARCA race featuring the pint-sized Patrick only brings about more questions.
 
And I’m not talking about her 6th place finish. Yes, that was great. But remember, ARCA is like single A baseball. You’ll get a better measure of her ability to drive stocks this Saturday in Daytona’s Nationwide Series race. And at this early stage in her stock car career, I don’t even think that’s a fair measure.

But I’m not here to argue about Patrick’s ability to pilot a car.
 
What I would like to debate is her real vs. perceived drawing power.

The TV ratings of last Saturday’s ARCA race make her seem like a sensation.
 
According to Nielsen Media Research, 2.4 million viewers tuned in to SpeedTV to see the Saturday afternoon race, an 87-percent increase over last year’s audience of 1.3 million. It was the second most viewed Speed event ever, according to station officials.

I assume the Nationwide race airing Feb. 13 on ESPN2 also will see a significant increase—maybe bigger than the ARCA bump. Who wouldn’t want to see Patrick trade paint with NASCAR’s big boys?

That brings us back to the Indy Racing League. Let’s start with this; The TV rating for this year’s season-opening ARCA race was higher than any 2009 IRL race except the Indianapolis 500.
 
And you can’t cry about people not being able to find the Versus cable channel. Let’s face it, the only folks with SpeedTV on their preferred rotation of channels are gearheads and hard-core race fanatics.

So either Patrick is having a big impact on the IRL, and without her, almost no one would be watching. Or she’s having little impact on the numbers for the IRL, which has had static attendance the past couple years and TV viewership languishing below 1 million nationally.
 
So which is it? And more importantly, why?

I’m not sure I can tell you. But if I’m in the IRL’s hot seat (that’s soon to be Randy Bernard), I’m thinking a lot about this and I’m demanding some answers from my marketing team.

First things first; Why are more people (by a significant margin) watching Patrick drive in a rinky-dink stock car series than they are watching her drive open-wheelers capable of going 200 plus mph?

After all, the Indy Racing League is about speed, technology, cutting-edge, chic, etc., etc. Right? That's what series officials have been selling. ARCA, for crying out loud, is about being one step removed from racing at the county fairgrounds.

Second, how can the IRL utilize the public’s obvious fascination with Patrick more effectively and how can the IRL leverage her success (and by success I’m talking fan interest) in stock car circles to move the needle for the open-wheel series.

I don’t know. Maybe Patrick is nothing more than a circus side show people will come to watch do something new a few times then fade away.

But if she does have long-term drawing power, and the IRL fails to harness it—and another series does—it could be the chicane that sends the IRL into the wall—sans safer barrier.
 

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  • IRL Popularity
    I believe the IRL viewing problem is the same across all racing. The IRL races are not exciting and no one, even Danica can make a difference when all the cars can do is follow each other around the track. Their is no competition when the rules make for boring racing. Racing is supposed to be entertaining no matter how you view it whether TV or in person. Bottom line, the entertainment value of both IRL and NASCAR has slipped over the years. What made Danica more inspiring to race fans was the opportunity she received with her recovery from a spin and move up through the pack in the ARCA race. Racing is about entertainment. The last 20 laps of the ARCA race was definitely entertaining.
    • IMHO
      I think if you look at the Irl season from last year, two teams won almost all the races. Penske and Target/Ganassi, I know I got sick of watching the same people win week after week not to mention the fact that only a small number of drivers are Americans. This used to be an American sport, but not anymore. Danica is by far the best American driver in the IRL. I know i watched every race last year and made it to the Iowa in person, and if it were not for Danica, I would not be watching. I know my wife and I are Flying to Brazil for the season opener this year.
      • IRL/NASCAR
        NASCAR has a strong following whether it is the Truck Series, ARCA, Nationwide, or Sprint Cup. Last weekend was the pre-speedweek events. We NASCAR fans are ready for the race season to start. Watching the ARCA race was a great warm-up for what is waiting to come this weekend.
      • not a big deal
        I think you just saw a lot of IRL fans tune in to see her race - I doubt there was a big increase in NASCAR fans watching. If you took a big name from NASCAR and brought them to the IRL you would see the same results. Yes she is popular, but true race fans consider her the Anna Kournikova of racing. If she does well in NASCAR, and I hope she does, maybe she could prove me wrong...
      • Danica does not equal Anna
        I'm not sure it's fair to compare Danica to Anna K. Danica is the best American open-wheel racer right now, and has proven to be competitive in the last several Indy 500s. You shouldn't love her just because she's a woman in a man's sport, but really, if you're objective, I think you'd have to say she's an above average race car driver. Not sure you could say the same for Anna K. Now if we can just get Danica to quit saying "ya know ..." during interviews.
        • Race to the BoringLine
          This is the same issue that NASCAR is facing - declining fanbase because the "Car of Tomorrow" and the Points series is making for "boring racing". As someone put it above - "all the cars do is follow each other around the track". There's nothing sensational, no passing, no "fights to the finish", no bitter rivalries, no - I could go on, but you get the point. It's boring. IRL has become a mundane waste of fuel, and it seems NASCAR is not far behind. At least Patrick puts some "fan excitement/color" in the ARCA series (which, as you put it, is one step above the fairgrounds - which makes it somewhat unpredictable) - but when she gets up to the big time - that will fall off, too - wait and see, if you can stay awake!
        • I think there is a third factor you left out, the Circus factor. I mean the press has been doing nothing but stories on Danica's debut in fender cars for several months now. I think a lot of people, OW, NASCAR, casual fans, women and just the plain curious, flipped on the tube to see what happens. Heck, the massive snow storm that locked millions of people in their houses could have had an effect. I would be curious to see how much of a bump she gives for future races. for that matter, there is a good chance her NASCAR could give the IRL a bump.
        • DP
          Yeah, she did real good racin' aginst mostly county fair racin' boys.
        • IndyCar
          I find your comments rather contradictory. You say Danica is, by far, the best racer? What, are you kidding me? Dixon, Kanaan, Franchitti, Castroneves, or Briscoe?? Would you argue that point with them?

          Then you mention that most of the drivers aren't Americans, yet you're going to the Brazil race?????

          Did it ever dawn upon people that it is not so much where people are from but where they are. How many of them furriners live in America. Well let's see, how about Franchitti in Nashville, Dixon in Indy, Briscoe and others? Remember one of our all time favs - Mario Andretti - gee born in Italy. We certainly didn't consider him a furriner, did we.

          Sometimes I just don't get people.

          I do hope you enjoy the new race in Brazil - should be good!
        • Danica
          C'mon Matt, put down your last year's swimsuit issue for a moment. Danica has proven herself to be competitive, but she's not, and likely will never be, the best open wheel racer today. Get real!
        • IRL is boring
          Look, IRL racing is boring, especially the road tracks... there is no friggin passing except when someone crashes... otherwise they just follow each other around the course... the ovals are a little better, but the cars are not competitive... remember last year? two teams with the 4 drivers trading positions... Danica of course was the best of the rest and think of this... if she was a driver for either of the two elite teams, how many races do you think she would have won? 2, 3, or more. It is all about the cars and not the drivers anymore. If she was not so focused on winning the Indy 500, then she would probably be gone for full time in NASCAR and based on how excited she was after the ARCA race, it sounds like she thinks it is a lot more fun there. Who knows how well she will do there, but if she turns out to have a feeling for driving those stock cars, she will be gone as soon as she wins an Indy and so will I.
        • IZOD is learning...
          I think there's maybe a lesson that Izod is starting to learn already. They have been buying ad time on ESPN, Fox and Speed during the recent racing events to advertise the Izod IndyCar Series. Smart idea. NOW - can they get the necessary approvals to launch a campaign to say "Come see Danica at her day job" or something like that, to further entice those viewers to watch IndyCar races on Versus? There's a definite marketing opportunity there.
        • Racing is in decline
          There is an uptick in interest surrounding Daytona this year because of the media hype of Patrick's presence. Think, Fad. Then think, Fade. Overall, big time automobile racing has run its course, no pun intended. NA$CAR, the IRL, sports cars, are done as potentially first, second, or third tier major league sports. Danica's presence will keep the numbers up awhile, but by mid-summer, look for all of racing's tv and attendance numbers in decline. Niche sports again, some, potentially, the IRL, are soon to be history. Racing has had its day.
        • on to something
          Burl, I think you've got it right. Open-wheel is back together, but still, the sport's best days are long gonen and I'm afraid for all those who still care about it, are gone forever. Or at least a very long while. Look at all the hoopla surrounding the new IRL chassis. Well, besides the local coverage there isn't any hoopla. None, zip, zilch on the national scene.
        • Keep Danica!
          How is LETTING Danica go to ARCA, or NASCAR not equivalent to CART losing (or refusing) Jeff Gordon, or IRL losing Tony Stewart (or failing with it's original vision)?

          Indy Car USED to be the pinnacle of motorsport....now ARCA is bigger and betterer?

          IRL should pony-up the finances to keep THEIR homegrown star DAnica in the IRL. Without her IRL the will again be associated with FAIL.
        • I was impressed
          I was impressed with Danica in the ARCA event. Please understand - I have NEVER been a fan of hers. I think that she got more credit than she was actually due (in the IRL). She never won a race in the Indycar developmental series but another female driver (Katherine Legge) won twice in the same series. BUT the composure and car control that she has shown in the ARCA race (anongst the rich kids and idiots in that series) was commendable. She may do well in NASCAR and that may help her open wheel career, too.
        • but, Dave....
          She's one of the reasons the IRL isn't taken seriously. She has been pimped mercilessly on the 500 and IRl stage for 5 years. She's a gimmick that garners WAY more attention than the REAL racers who win the 500 and IRL championship. She's leveraging that faux stardom to NASCAR and is gonna make BIG $$$ along with the swimsuit spreads.

          She's one win better than Ed Carpenter and they ain't busting the door down to get to him, are they? THATS why the IRL is farce. Most popular figures are Danica, Helio (because of Dancing with the Stars), and Sarah...a journeyperson who's never won a race and has one of the few visible sponsorships for a limited race deal.

          IRL, do SOMEHTING please, AOW is dead on your watch...

        • Chief,

          It is very different than never having given Gordon a chance. Just like a football team that cannot afford to keep its star player, or a company losing a key employee to a wealthier company, the IRL has little choice but to hope Danica stays in the IRL. But nothing short of barrels of money, and even that may have not been enoough, would keep her in the IRL. Like Stewart and Hornish, I cannot blame Danica for trying this. Similar to Michael Andretti leaving cart to try F1.

        • And the sport was better for it....
          Not even CLOSE to being similar to Mikey to F1. CARt got Nigel Mansell in return, reigning F1 world champion. Immediate benefactors? CART and IMS/Indy 500.

          Danica being allowed to leave....IMS gets FAILURE. When you have a one trick sparklepony you are left holding the bag.
        • I know, I know!!!
          No one watches the 'league' because it sucks. I know that's difficult for some to comprehend, but it's reality.

          Tony George created the environment of gloom, hate, and suckage that permeates the 'league'. Just because he got the boot does not mean those 'qualities' went away with him.

          It's garbage. The only way to 'fix' it is to cease all operations immediately and in permanence.

          code = crp8c
        • Stan,

          You post the only way to fix it is to kill it? No wonder people do not take you seriously. I hope you are not a doctor.
        • what did cart or IMS gain from Nigel? He ran two seasons while bad mouthing the series then went back to F1. I am not really sure how that helped OW racing.

        • Good reads
          Lots of good reads here. From one who has followed both Indy and NASCAR since I was a kid, moreso Indy, and been a regular at Indy and Iowa races since 2003, here's my takes: 1.) Danica can race. If you think her save at her ARCA race was impressive, IMO, her save in her rookie race at Indy was moreso. And after that, she still finished 4th. It's not so much about the saves thou, then just being a decent racer overall, which she is. 2.) Agreed with Steve Sparks about the top teams in the IRL, same winners = boring. NASCAR may have that problem growing with JJ. No denying that team is the top team, but having the same winners is not good in the long haul. 3.) It will be interesting to see if the IRL gets more viewers from Danica's adventure. If I was in marketing for the IRL, I'd be doing my damnest to sell this angle for 3 more years, because if she is even semi successful in the Nationwide series, she's gone after her contract is up. 4.) IMO, one very big contributer to the merger of IRL and CART (more road races) will be the undoing of Danica from the IRL. She is significally better on ovals, where there's plenty in NASCAR, and she's stated that she likes ovals better. I'll be disappointed if she moves because personally, I love the speed of Indy car over NASCAR, and I can deal with less passing (Kanaan had a pass mid way thru Indy a couple years ago, it was amazing how the place erupted when this happened). But I'll be more willing to go see NASCAR in person if she does move.
        • What did they gain?
          Prominence, respect, attention, exciting racing. That's what was gained by Nigel's venture.

          Surprizingly, ALL of the things the IRL and Indy lacks today. Go figure...
        • Izod Indycar Series
          Read Sarah Palin's palm
          http://i46.tinypic.com/mvqo2g.jpg
        • Izod Indycar Series
          look how exciting winning the irl car league ckampionship can be

          http://motorsport.com/photos/indycar/2009/hom/indycar-2009-hom-lb-0407.jpg
        • This is the Danica Peak in NASCAR
          When Danica was leading the Indy 500 in 2005, the ratings shot up to a 10 for a while. As time went on, the Danicamania faded.

          I thought her first race in a stock car would get higher ratings then last Saturday's ARCA race. The build up had been going on for six months; you'd think it would have at least equalled a Cup Race. After all, this is at Daytona.

          NASCAR, ESPN and FOX have been pushing this thing very hard. Those ratings last Saturday should have been through the roof.

          This weekend could be the peak of her NASCAR popularity
        • The IRL is a joke
          The IRL doesn't get anyone to watch it (except for a few corn-field denizens in Central Indiana) because it is a joke. It will die soon enough.

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