IndyCar gets set to race with no Danica

Danica Patrick – NASCAR driver

For seven years, Danica Patrick has reigned as the most popular driver in the IndyCar Series and one of the most marketable drivers in all of motorsports.

She's appeared in Super Bowl ads for sponsor Go Daddy. She's posed for photo spreads in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue and FHM magazine. Time magazine named Patrick to its list of the world's 100 most influential people, and People deemed her among the world's most beautiful.

Patrick will be taking her driving abilities and star power to NASCAR full-time in 2012, meaning the Kentucky Indy 300 on Sunday will be Patrick's last IndyCar race at Kentucky Speedway.

"Most people probably think of it as a negative for IndyCar," IndyCar chief executive officer Randy Bernard said this week. "I don't look at it as much as a negative for IndyCar as a positive for NASCAR.

"She does bring a different demographic. But if you've been to our events, she has a nice appeal with the fan base, but it's not our only fan there."

Patrick has been an asset for the IndyCar brand since she arrived in 2005. But the sanctioning body has been wise not to build the IndyCar Series around her alone, a motorsports marketing executive said.

"You've got drivers like Helio (Castroneves). Dario Franchitti. Will Power. These are guys with personalities and recognition," said Mike Mooney, vice president of motorsports for The Marketing Arm. "The league is smart in building upon multiple personalities because they know a driver may (leave) through injury, through attrition, through sponsorship, through a switch like Danica's just decided to make. That will happen."

Castroneves is a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner who in 2007 achieved broad mainstream appeal when he won ABC's Dancing with the Stars. The 36-year-old Brazilian would seem poised to become IndyCar's most popular and marketable driver.

He thinks Patrick's departure is an opportunity for IndyCar to promote even more of its drivers.

"You have great cars, great drivers and teams now. Everything is merged together," Castroneves said. "I do believe you have a variety of drivers, and each one of them has their own personality. A lot of people might not know that.

"Maybe Danica leaving might be a good thing because they're going to have to become creative. Having her, it was more, we know she's going to draw a crowd and let's take advantage of it. Everybody is going to have to roll their sleeves up and go to work. Certainly, there is room for a lot of drivers, and that might be a great opportunity for everyone."

Castroneves ranks 10th in the IndyCar Series standings this season, two spots ahead of Patrick, but he trails the Andretti Autosport driver across the board in The Marketing Arm's Celebrity Davie Brown Index.

The DBI measures a celebrity's ability to influence consumers and is used by brands and their agencies to help identify celebrity spokespersons for marketing purposes. Castroneves and Patrick are among the nearly 2,900 celebrities in the index.

"A guy like Helio, he's … definitely on the radar in terms of getting it done on the track," Mooney said. "But also if they're looking to broaden their appeal and use someone like him, I think they're still going to be OK."

"I think Verizon has done a remarkable job with Will Power, putting him in ads and on billboards," Bernard said. "I would hope Target would do the same thing one day with Dario (Franchitti) because I think that's where you build the stardom for your drivers – through the activation of your sponsors."

Patrick's marketing team has branded her as a determined and talented driver with celebrity sex appeal. But she hasn't been just a pretty face.

Patrick was the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and made history by becoming the first woman to win a major, closed-course motorsports event. She hasn't won in IndyCar since 2008 at Twin Ring Motegi – a drought of 64 races entering Sunday's race at Kentucky Speedway – but earlier this year finished fourth in a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"The fans who have been following her in both series (IndyCar and NASCAR) as well as marketers in this sport, I think we're beyond that fascination and curiosity," Mooney said. "It's really about what she's doing on track and she is a performer on track. She's a competitor."

One of Patrick's three career IndyCar pole positions came at the 1.5-mile track in Sparta. The speedway will get a dose of Danica next year. She will be driving a full Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports and limited Sprint Cup Series race with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Meanwhile, her IndyCar team owner is confident the series will be fine after she moves to NASCAR.

"Is our series going to die without Danica? Absolutely not," said Michael Andretti, who owns the No. 7 car driven by Patrick in the IndyCar Series. "As she leaves, I think there are still going to be people that are going to watch our sport because it is the best, I think, the best auto racing series in the world. I mean, it's so exciting. Every race is exciting … It's not going to be as big of a deal as everybody thinks."

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