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Danica changed open-wheel racing

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick has played a major role in the popularity of the IndyCar Series.
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Holly Cain

Holly Cain has covered racing in all its forms for 21 years, winning multiple awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors and Society of Professional Journalists for feature and news writing. She chronicled NASCAR Champion Rusty Wallace's final season, authoring a book called "Rusty's Last Call." Follow her on Twitter.

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In 2004, Danica Patrick and her then-team owner Bobby Rahal sat in director’s chairs in the front of the massive pressroom at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, barely noticed by the reporters who busily pecked at their keyboards, writing their story of the day.

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This was Patrick’s official introduction to the national racing media, and I still remember it vividly. It was hardly the crowded, camera-jostling, question-shouting affair her interviews have evolved into.

Only a dozen or so of us were curious enough to actually leave our seats to join Patrick and Rahal. Other reporters just gazed up from their laptops occasionally.

By current Danica standards, it was a humble and modest affair. Today’s great racing commodity and the new hope of NASCAR Nation was back then simply: Danica Patrick, a young driver -- still known by a first and last name -- looking for a break.

During the informal question-and-answer period, Rahal – the 1986 Indy 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champ – smiled and smugly promised that Patrick would be racing at Indy real soon, perhaps the next year.

As Rahal beamed and made predictions about his young prodigy, I remember watching the surprised look on Patrick’s face being followed by that steely, determined smile we now know so well.

But neither Rahal nor Patrick nor IndyCar could have predicted what would happen the following May. Patrick’s historic fourth-place, Rookie-of-the-Year performance in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 changed IndyCar’s fortunes, Patrick’s fate and, a half-decade later, the face of NASCAR.

As Patrick says farewell this weekend to a most celebrated IndyCar career, people will contemplate her legacy and analyze her statistics. But her contributions have less to do with historic finishes and much more to do with their aftermath.

And that’s especially evident in the media mania that surrounds Patrick as she leaves her comfort zone for a full time NASCAR career and the mix of expectations that go with it.

“I don’t think anyone could have forecast this great personality that she has become,’’ Rahal said this week. “Did I think she had the potential to run up front and maybe win races? Yes. There was always the possibility of that. But the creation of this personality exploded to the point where she was the only star in 2005.

“If you remember, Dan Wheldon won the Indy 500 but all anyone wanted to talk about was Danica.’’

The extreme combination of fame, hype and hope that came from that historic run continues to follow Patrick. And it is both the greatest gift and largest obstacle she leaves IndyCar as she heads off to uncharted, full-time life among NASCAR’s good ol’ boys.

Patrick’s head-turning, eye-popping showing in the 2005 Indy 500 – she became the first woman in history to lead laps – brought massive attention back to the greatest race in the world after years of dust and disgruntlement.

She was walking Hollywood red carpets, posing in bikinis, starring in national commercials and creating headlines from New York to Los Angeles.

For the first time in years, people were interested in and talking about the racing and the racers, instead of fixating on the tired old storyline of the open-wheel split that hurt the sport during the late 1990s and early 2000s and opened the door for NASCAR’s great ascension.

Patrick’s success story brought in new fans that didn’t even know or care about the split or the feud between the established CART series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s then-President Tony George’s Indy Racing League.

Women were watching. Men were watching. Kids were watching.

And finally, the open-wheel split was old news.

Certainly the more established drivers like Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan had given IndyCar credibility and fans compelling reasons to watch for years previous.

But Patrick’s celebrity helped bridge the fame gap in open-wheel racing that existed between the CART heyday of Mario Andretti, Rick Mears and Rahal and the IRL’s initial offering of Billy Boat, Dr. Jack Miller and Buddy Lazier.

People tuned in to see Patrick and that helped the series as a whole and, whether they’d admit it or not, it also helped Franchitti, Castroneves , Kanaan and Wheldon. The more attention the series got, the more attention they got.

It just wasn’t as much as Patrick. And that’s the rub.

Patrick became the first woman to win a major open-wheel race in 2008 at Motegi, Japan. Since then, even as her success on track has waned, her popularity hasn’t.

Target Ganasssi Racing and Team Penske have dominated the competition in the last four years, with fantastic championship battles decided in one season finale after another. But Patrick still got the bigger headlines and bulk of television time.

Her exit means other “personalities” will have to seize the attention. Their charisma must match their talent.

“Obviously IndyCar will carry on,’’ reigning Indy 500 winner Wheldon said this week. “Do I think it’s bad that she’s leaving? I think everyone would agree, it would be better if she stays, but it would have been worse a few years ago.

“But she hasn’t been running up front as much as she’d like, so the media has not been following her like it once did.

“Her leaving now, I think, affects things less and in a way it’s good for the sport because now people will see a lot of other great drivers to get behind.’’

IndyCar television coverage started weaning viewers from the every-move-she-makes coverage months ago when it was apparent she would jump ship to stock cars.

“Obviously, Danica made an impact,’’ Rahal said. “Not so much based on the success on the racetrack, but she probably became the first real media star in IndyCar since (Mario) Andretti and (A.J.) Foyt.

“Those guys did it by winning races, she did by showing a lot of promise in a man’s sport. In 2005 she transcended the sport and in many ways has been able to maintain that despite an average success rate.

“But no individual is bigger than the sport. Perhaps in some respects, now the focus in IndyCar will be on the racing and not so much the personality.

“And that may be a good thing.’’

Tagged: Danica Patrick

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