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Danica and Daytona: So It’s 2005 All Over Again

by Stephen Cox
Sunday, February 24, 2013

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Danica Patrick in 2005 - a star was born
July 23rd, 2005 was just another pleasant, sunny Saturday afternoon in Milwaukee until several IndyCar drivers committed the Unpardonable Sin.

They dared to openly protest the fact that Danica Patrick – then an IndyCar driver – was being promoted by the series far more than her male counterparts.

Of course, this was no secret to anyone. Danica was, in fact, being promoted more than any other driver in IndyCar.

The inequity was so dramatic that the most hardcore Patrick supporter dared not deny it. Even the race series could not deny it. It was a national joke. It was one of those things that everyone knew but no one had the courage to say.

Until Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Brian Herta said it. Then the excrement hit the fan at 225 miles per hour.

IndyCar’s Director of Race Operations, Brian Barnhart, went into emergency damage control mode. Frantic, closed-door meetings were held between the series and those unruly drivers who dared to state the obvious. The rebels were finally brought back into line after being threatened with every possible penalty. 

Barnhart then went public, claiming that Patrick was a victim who had done nothing to ask for any of the attention given to her (note to Brian: women who don’t want attention rarely pose for men’s magazines… just sayin’). Then everyone went back to pretending that nothing was wrong.

But the point had been made, and several drivers who were not Danica were eventually offered a few morsels of attention to shut them up.

Ultimately, no matter who was right or wrong, it was a public relations train wreck resulting directly from a monumental inequity in the way the series treated its drivers. 

I wonder if NASCAR will learn their lesson in time to avoid a similar embarrassment. Social media was brimming with sarcasm over the media obsession with Danica at Daytona last weekend. Open wheel driver Conor Daly tweeted, “I actually think it would be awesome if she won, but there are a few other people in the race.” Former IndyCar drivers Mark Dismore and P. J. Chesson joked about watching the “Danica 500.”

Some will call this petty jealousy. But to those who feed their families by risking their necks to drive a racecar and hustling every weekend for their sponsors, it is neither jealousy nor pettiness. It is their livelihood. Remember, when your name is called on television, it is recognition for the sponsor who provides your paycheck. When your name is not called on television, the omission is cause for a sponsor to reconsider your value.

I know of very few drivers who would finish 15th and ask for the same media coverage as the race winner. Further, most drivers expect some extra attention to be drawn by circumstantial factors. Perhaps a teenage sensation is making his or her first start. Sure, that will draw extra attention. Maybe the peculiarity of someone’s ethnicity or gender will manufacture a new “first” of some sort. Okay, no problem. Chase the novelty for a few minutes.

But a driver who finishes 15th has every right to ask for the same promotional return as other drivers who finished in a similar position. The accolades should be on par with performance.

Danica drove very well at Daytona, which somewhat justified NASCAR’s incredible effort at over-promoting her last week. But ask yourself this… when is the last time a network interviewed the 8th place finisher before even talking to the winner? That’s precisely what they did at Daytona on Sunday. 

If that’s a glimpse of things to come, NASCAR should remember the hard lessons learned by IndyCar and try to maintain some semblance of sanity.

When Danica wins, give her all the proper recognition of a winner. When she finishes 20th, don’t publicize her at the expense of other good people who drove their hearts out only to have the spotlight pointed elsewhere. 

This isn’t about Danica. Never has been. It’s about everyone else. It’s about treating people fairly and avoiding another major embarrassment to auto racing.

Because no one wants to re-live 2005 all over again.

Stephen Cox

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