Almost everyone involved with the Indy Racing League expected a firestorm of publicity after Danica Patrick won her first open-wheel race. But few predicted just how hot a commodity the 26-year-old driving diva would become following her April 19 win in Japan.
"It's not like we got caught unprepared. We had a plan in place for over a year," said Terry Angstadt, president of IRL's commercial division.
The victory blueprint included a list of contacts to be made, interviews to be granted, and a schedule for visits to major media hubs.
Still, the response is "tenfold what we thought it would be," Angstadt said.
Sports marketers said Patrick's triumph is getting more global attention than the series' unification with Champ Car earlier this year.
A surge in ticket demand for the series' April 27 race near Kansas City, Kan., pushed the event near its 82,000 capacity, said Kansas Speedway officials. Last year's race drew fewer than 70,000, but that was still one of the largest IRL crowds outside Indianapolis. Media credential requests are up from 250 last year to more than 400 this year, said Kansas Speedway spokeswoman Kelly Hale. More than 100 of those requests arrived after Patrick's victory.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials reported record activity on their ticket sales Web site on April 21.
"It's too early to get a handle on just what the cumulative impact will be, but we're getting a strong volume of inquiries," said IMS spokesman Ron Green.
There's also been a significant increase in media credential requests for the Indianapolis 500 since Patrick's victory.
"We're getting requests from not only sportswriters, but columnists and feature writers, and from publications that don't traditionally cover motorsports," Green said.
Meanwhile, T-shirts and other products emblazoned with Patrick's image have been selling fast, reported Indianapolis-based MainGate Inc., which handles all the driver's licensed merchandise sales.
"DanicaRacingStore.comtraffic has increased 550 percent since her victory, and sales are up 900 percent," said David Moroknek, MainGate CEO.
Patrick's merchandise sales have been growing at a triple-digit percentage clip for three years, IRL officials said, with Patrick's products outselling the merchandise of all other IRL drivers combined.
Now that she has won, Moroknek thinks Patrick's 2008 merchandise sales will be double the projections, bringing her near what some of the top-name NASCAR drivers command in licensed goods sales. To capitalize on the victory, MainGate will have three Danica-only merchandise trailers at the IMS this May.
MainGate officials wouldn't divulge annual sales for Patrick's licensed goods, but other sports marketers estimated it near $100 million. That's only about 40 percent of what NASCAR stars such as Jeff Gordon pull in.
The moment Patrick hit victory lane, IRL officials were making plans to get her back on U.S. soil, to best leverage the opportunity for exposure.
"[IRL Vice President of Public Relations] John Griffin told me almost the moment after she took the checkered flag, 'We have to get her back to the United States,'" Angstadt said. "I told him, 'I don't have a Gulfstream in my pocket.'"
Nonetheless, IRL officials got Patrick on a plane ahead of schedule, and she arrived in California the next afternoon-less than 15 hours after her victory, in time to handle a slew of press interviews at the Long Beach Grand Prix, where Champ Car was holding its final race before folding into the IRL.
What followed the next 36 hours was a dizzying array of television and radio show appearances and more print media interviews. Patrick also rubbed elbows with sponsors at Honda's California compound, before setting off on a twoday media blitz in New York April 22 and 23.
Meanwhile, Patrick's sponsors-including Motorola, GoDaddy.comand AirTran Airlines-rushed to put together marketing campaigns to celebrate the first major open-wheel victory by a woman.
AirTran called April 21 AirTranica Day, putting huge photos of Patrick on two of its jets. GoDaddy.com, a Web domain registry, redesigned its Web site to promote its Patrick sponsorship deal.
Marketers said Motorola is considering a TV spot showing real-life video of Patrick calling her sister back in the States on a Motorola cell phone after her victory in Japan. Motorola officials would not confirm those plans, but said they are contemplating increasing Patrick-centric advertising leading up to next month's Indianapolis 500.
Honda on April 25 ran a full-page ad touting its relationship with Patrick in USA Today, and the Japanese carmaker promised more to come.
IRL officials also discussed ways of supplementing their marketing campaign-including a possible new TV spot featuring Patrick.
Patrick's corporate partners said the already big benefit of their relationship with her has now intensified.
"Ever since we've had Danica featured on our Web site, which started more than a year ago, that's had a very positive impact on our business," said GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons. "Her personality is already dominant in this sport. Now that she has won, we expect the impact to be even more thrilling."
IRL officials said Patrick's victory is also helping intensify talks with several companies about a potential title sponsorship of the series. Though May would be the ideal time to make that announcement, IRL officials think it will take longer to put such a package together.
"We have several companies taking a serious look at the title sponsorship right now," said IRL's Angstadt. "But it's important to get the right sponsor. When you have big and healthy sponsors, they are in a position to take advantage of situations like we have now. That's what makes our sport even healthier."