By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 25, 2005
RICHMOND, June 24 -- Indy Racing League driver Dan Wheldon showed up at Texas Motor Speedway two weeks ago wearing a T-shirt with the words "I actually won the Indy 500" across the chest.
Wheldon's face will indeed be engraved on the Borg-Warner Trophy, alongside the other Indianapolis 500 champions. But the face of IndyCar racing this season is that of Danica Patrick, the 23-year-old rookie who drove open-wheel racing back into the conscience of American sports fans with her historic performance at Indianapolis last month.
"I don't think [other drivers] want to admit that her draw is helping them, but it's the truth," said Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and co-owner of Patrick's Honda-powered Panoz. "Everyone from sponsors to teams to the IRL is benefiting from her. She's having the 'Tiger' effect on TV ratings."
Rahal and other racing executives say Patrick's talent on the track and marketability off it is helping the IRL attract a broader audience, much the way Tiger Woods did for golf in the late 1990s, and could help open-wheel racing compete with NASCAR's enormous popularity. They call it the Danica factor.
"There's no question Danica has captured the imagination of fans in the U.S. and beyond," said Ken Ungar, the IRL's senior vice president of business affairs. "Young women are looking at her as a role model. There's certainly a buzz."
The 89th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, which was televised on ABC, earned the race's highest rating since 1996, posting a national household rating of 6.5 -- up 59 percent from the previous year, according to Neilsen's Media Research. The rating peaked at 8.6 when Patrick dueled with Wheldon for the lead in the closing laps, outdrawing the NASCAR Nextel race held the same day for the first time in four years.
At Texas Motor Speedway on June 11, ESPN saw its ratings jump 150 percent (the 1.0 cable rating was the largest for an IndyCar race on the network), despite Patrick's struggles. She finished 13th, the last car on the lead lap, in front of an estimated crowd of about 102,000, which was nearly 8,000 more than the previous year.
While the IRL's numbers at Texas improved, they also underscored just how far the open-wheel circuit must go to gain ground on NASCAR, whose popularity has soared over the past decade while open-wheel racing's fortunes have sped in the opposite direction. The IRL's rating at Texas was a fraction of what the NASCAR event draws on network television at the same track, and the number of spectators was roughly half what the stock cars draw there.
"I don't think any one driver, whether they are red, green or brown, is going to be the cure-all for an entire sport," said Paul Swangard of Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
What's more, the breakneck speed of Patrick's ascent has some drivers, racing officials and marketing experts worried. What if she doesn't live up to the hype? What if she becomes the auto racing equivalent of Anna Kournikova, the Russian tennis player who attracts far more headlines for her looks and private life than for her accomplishments on the court. In six races, Patrick has had mixed results, posting two fourth-place finishes and four finishes of 12th or worse.
"Danica has wonderful short-term upside from a marketing standpoint," Swangard said. "But for Danica's sake, for the IRL's sake, it's prudent to be conservative, particularly if she becomes the Anna Kournikova of racing. That's the type of label that she would find hard to shake."
Patrick can put those concerns to rest by taking the checkered flag in Richmond, where she'll start the SunTrust Indy Challenge from the last row.
Heading into Saturday night's race, expectations surrounding Patrick are growing. Fans have lined up several rows deep outside her team's garage area, hoping to snap a picture or get an autograph. Patrick's Rahal Letterman Racing team merchandise, consisting primarily of T-shirts and hats, sold out at the past two races.
"It hasn't been like NASCAR, but Danica's merchandise is outselling the rest of the field combined," Rahal said. "And by a large margin."
Patrick's popularity has prompted her sponsors to extend their contracts with her, Rahal said, and it also has attracted more sponsorship opportunities, particularly from companies that manufacture products geared toward women. "I guess the sponsors figure they need to get in while they still can," Rahal said.
The media haven't been able to get enough of her, either. Since her fourth place at Indianapolis -- the best finish for a woman -- she has been on nearly every network morning show and featured in national newspapers and magazines. During the week of the Indianapolis 500, she was in the top five keywords searched on search engines MSN, Yahoo and Google.
Richmond race officials are hoping to cash in on Patrick's popularity. One of the race's promotional slogans is "Get Ready DC, Danica is coming to Richmond." Posters in Richmond read, "Be there for Danica's First Race at Richmond International Raceway. . . . You saw her lead the Indy 500, now see her race in Richmond."
"We've tweaked our advertising to let people know, yes, Danica will be racing here," said Keith Green, Richmond International Raceway's director of public relations.
"We are several thousand tickets ahead and expect a much bigger walk-up -- possibly double -- what we normally have," Green said in an e-mail. The race has also attracted more requests for media credentials.
"I don't let it get to me," said Patrick, who is 5 feet 2 and weighs 100 pounds. "It doesn't make me feel like I have to do something. The only thing I hope in the process of all this . . . is that I want-- I hope -- that IndyCar Racing stays in the headlines. I hope it isn't only dependent on me. I hope people won't stray away because I have some okay race.
"I'm not going to win every single race, so I just wish that everyone else gets the same recognition or at least some of the recognition for doing great things."
Try telling that to Wheldon. Patrick appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the biggest win of his career. In the post-race news conference following Wheldon's Indianapolis win, he was asked by a reporter about "spoiling Danica's party."
Wheldon was annoyed. And he was still stinging weeks later. Patrick's teammates couldn't resist, either. Buddy Rice's T-shirt read, "Danica's teammate" and Vitor Meira's said, "Danica's other teammate."
Patrick's rise hasn't been without her detractors or controversy.
Patrick hasn't been able to get through an interview session without being asked about the racy photos that appeared in FHM Magazine two years ago. She posed in a leather bikini, leaning on a 1957 Chevy.
Bernie Ecclestone, the 74-year-old Formula One boss, told reporters in Indianapolis last week that women "should be all dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances."
To Patrick's surprise, she said, he called her last Saturday and repeated his comments.
"I can't believe that he would say it to me over the phone, not directly to my face, but directly to me. I was a bit confused," Patrick said on the IRL's weekly teleconference Tuesday. "But some of the conversation was positive and complimentary, so I really don't know what to think about it."
"I think it's been a bit much for some people," Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr. said of Patrick's popularity. "But she brings attention to the sport, so overall it's a positive."