Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Star Problems: Danica Patrick and Dale Jr.

Some fans of open-wheel racing are getting annoyed at the amount of attention given to Indy Racing League rookie Danica Patrick for merely average achievements, like finishing in 10th place and a few laps down at Richmond last Saturday.

I sympathize with these fans, but I can understand why the IRL and its friends in the media are pushing Danica's story with such gusto.

The reality for the IRL is that, right now, the only driver anyone but the more hardcore fans care about is Danica. The folks who run the IRL probably feel they have a small window of opportunity to turn Danica into a big-time, pop icon-style sports star, and that if she becomes this kind of star, she’ll somehow pull the IRL up with her.

I don’t think its a very sound plan (for a number of reasons), but I can understand why the IRL thinks it might work. When it comes down to it, Danica is probably better raw material for the star-making process than anyone else in motorsports today: she's attractive, she's media savvy, and she beats (some of) the guys on the racetrack. And another thing the IRL loves about her is that she's American.

However, there are a couple of big problems here:

(1) I've written this before but I get a little queasy at the thought of Danica--playing the lovely, spunky young heroine-of -a-feel-good-sports-movie role--getting a concussion, chipping her spine, or worse. It's one thing for the Indy Racing League to use Danica's sex appeal to sell a product, but it's another when the product that they're trying to sell could maim her (considerably hurting said sex appeal).

And if Danica ever did crash and suffer a severe injury, not only would all the new fans she brought in disappear, but the IRL would suffer a major, and perhaps irreversible, PR catastrophe.

(2) I'm not sure that Danica's fans-of-the-moment will turn into regular IRL fans. Sure, some people will tune it to watch Danica but will end up falling in love with the borderline insanity of the best IRL races. But somehow, I doubt this will happen, especially when guys like Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves--two great drivers that no one in America actually cares about--keep winning races.

(I'll have to check on the exact numbers, but I'm pretty sure that not very many of the people who started watching golf because they were Tiger Woods fans ended up becoming long-term, dedicated PGA fans. And Woods is a genuine, winning sports superstar, whose greatness showed from the very beginning of his career. Danica Patrick, on the other hand, is, at best, a promising rookie.)

The people running the IRL are trying to make up for a decade's worth of bad PR decisions by turning Danica into a star, but this is really just a stop gap solution and doesn't really address the real problem: namely, the best American drivers continue to follow the money to NASCAR. Instead of putting all their effort into turning Danica into a big-time sports star, the IRL would probably be better off paying an obscene amount of money to lure guys like Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards away from NASCAR. (It would have to be an obscene amount, because IRL racing is so much more dangerous than NASCAR). Or they could start my paying a slightly less obscene amount to bring a bunch of decent, second tier NASCAR drivers (like Brendan Gaughan, say) over to the IRL. Finally, they could try to make sure no more of the best American open-wheel drivers end up in NASCAR.

But all that would take money that the IRL and its teams just don't have.

Of course, this year NASCAR is facing its own "star problem". Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular figure, will very likely not make it into the Chase for the Championship, a system that was set up, in part, to stop the most popular drivers from falling out of competition towards the end of the season, thus taking their fans with them. The idea being that all those Junior fans are less likely to tune into the final races of the season if Junior really has no chance of winning the title.

Already there are rumors that the folks at NASCAR are going to change the rules in order to get Junior into the Chase if he's unable to get in by performing well on the track.

All this worrying over Junior points to one of NASCAR's weaknesses: for all the talk of the "Young Guns", NASCAR has done a pretty poor job at turning any of the new crop of drivers into stars. Even though Kurt Busch won the Championship last year, I met a bunch of casual but longtime fans at this Spring's NASCAR race in Atlanta who didn't know his name.

Who are the genuine NASCAR stars? (I mean the guys that even casual fans know about).

-Older drivers who've built up a fan base over the years, like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Dale Jarrett. These guys have not only been around for a while, but they've often been with the same team for a while, which makes it much easier to follow their careers.

-Junior, who inherited many (if not most) of his fans from his father.

-Jeff Gordon, who earned his fans throughout the 1990s by winning lots of races, filling the role of the "Anti-Earnhardt", and by being one of the all-time great NASCAR drivers.

-Tony Stewart, who has filled the role of the "Anti-Gordon". (Stewart's main problem, though, is that I always get the sense he'd rather be open-wheel racing. He semmed more excited after winning Turkey Night in 2000 than he did after winning the Winston Cup in 2002).

But that's about it. Guys like Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman have really failed to make an impression. There are more casual fans who know who Jeremy Mayfield is because of a funny commercial that he appeared in than there are casual fans who know who Bush and Newman are.

The Fox and NBC broadcast teams have spent far too much time yammering on and on about all the great "Young Guns", but they haven't managed to turn these talented drivers into stars.

Now, NASCAR is facing a Chase for the Cup that will leave out its two most popular drivers. Right now, the biggest star eligible to compete for the Championship is Rusty Wallace, who's racing his final season.

Some of the reasons for this "star vacuum" are the same as those of the "talent vacuum" discussed in this article. (Hat tip: Full Throttle).

But paradoxically, the lack of stars might have to do with the sport becoming too competitive. Jimmie Johnson has come the closest of any driver in being consistently dominant over the last few years. Most other young drivers though have had good streaks or even good years, but have been unable to string together truly impressive seasons, back-to-back.

Another way to put it is that NASCAR, though media manipulation alone, cannot create new stars. This means they're probably going to do whatever they can to make sure the stars that they do have will make it into the Chase. (If they don't change the rules for this year, they will almost certainly do so for next year).

My advice for making new stars:

(1) Have drivers stay at one team, with one sponsor, in basically the same car for as long as possible.

(2) Make sure that when you give a young driver a ride you are making a long term commitment.

(3) Choose drivers who might actually be able to win a lot of races.

(4) If the drivers aren't Jeff Gordon (i.e., winning tons of races), allow them to express their personality and don't try to turn them into cookie-cutter corporate spokesmen.


Michael said...

Not all Danica Fans are new to Indy Racing.

In addition, I do think your assessment of her "average achievements" is a bit off the mark.

I was at last Sunday's Argent Mortgage Indy 300 a Kansas Speedway. While she finished 9th in that race - she moved up the pack and into 4th late in the race and challenged for third. She is still learning - she got caught at one point in traffic from the pit lane - but she raced a very good race and did so with problems with 4th gear.

Her performance at Indy was exceptional - and I don't mean just for a woman. For a rookie to finish 4th was an accomplishment.

Notably last Sunday she was the also the best finish rookie in the field. Tomas Enge finished two places behind her and Ryan Briscoe - well, he didn't get in more than 113 laps.

She goes out to compete and it shows. From qualifying to the race itself.

Is she the greatest racer? I don't think anyone is saying that. If she average... no, I think she is well above average for her status. The future will show us what she is made of, but I think is indeed a rising star in Indy Racing.

I for one am looking forward to the Michigan 400. I think that is her next best shot. But I'll be watching the Nashville race as well.

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