Life without Danica presents serious challenges for IndyCar

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Whether open-wheel racing fans like it or not, the biggest question facing the IndyCar Series right now isn’t how the new 2012 car and engines will perform.

It isn’t whether a former Formula One star will join the series or whether the series will be embraced in China or other overseas markets. It isn’t whether IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard will survive another year or whether the series will finally register a profit after 17 years in business.

The biggest question is whether the series will be better or worse off without Danica Patrick.

As a native of Indianapolis and a reporter who has covered the business of open-wheel racing and Indianapolis Motor Speedway the last 14 years, I’d like to say the series will be better off.

She rarely steered her way into the winner’s circle. Her driving ability would never be confused with that of Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon or Will Power—all of whom remain with the series.

Her tantrums became old and tired years ago and the sideshow that followed her everywhere had long been a distraction to many drivers and hardcore open-wheel fans.

And worst of all, she took valuable air time and column inches from other drivers. Now that Patrick is gone, open-wheel diehards have to be hoping that ABC and NBC will spend more time putting the spotlight on the people who really have a shot at winning on a regular basis.

Rookies and other rising stars such as James Hinchcliffe, J.R. Hildebrand and Katherine Legge—and their teams—could be the biggest benefactors of Patrick’s absence, as the media that covers racing rushes to fill the void.

Of course, there’s another fear. That the racing media—and worse yet, casual race fans—will turn their backs on IndyCar Racing altogether and flee to NASCAR with Patrick. The diminutive driver is certainly causing quite a media frenzy leading up to her debut at the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Patrick’s upside cannot be denied. And it is quite quantifiable.

Fans voted her the most popular IndyCar driver in each of the last three years. Her merchandise in recent years has outsold all other IndyCar Series’ drivers’ combined. The line to get her autograph before qualifications and races was easily five times as long as the series’ other most popular drivers.

GoDaddy and her other sponsors have pushed her image, along with IndyCar’s, into the public conscious.

A quick search under Google News this week finds there are almost twice as many stories written about Patrick as about the entire IndyCar Series.

To be fair, in the week heading into the Daytona 500 the media is getting pretty amped up about NASCAR, where Patrick now makes her living full-time.

The common thinking among many in the IndyCar paddock is that Patrick’s absence may hurt in the short term, but in the long term will help a more well-rounded series grow. After all, the thinking goes, IndyCar has so much more to offer than a one-win driver.

Still, the concern for Bernard and his staff is real. Like it or not, he has to find a way to sell a Danica-free IndyCar Series.

And he has to wonder if the series’ modest attendance gains and its 28-percent TV ratings increases of last year will continue in 2012 or fade away in a puff of smoke.

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