IndyCar planning for Danica’s replacement

Danica Patrick has refused to dignify this speculation of her moving to NASCAR with a response. But certainly the folks who run IndyCar racing are concerned about the prospect of Patrick taking her act to NASCAR next season. Forgive Randy Bernard for his crassness, but he acknowledged in an interview that he’s even more concerned about losing Go Daddy’s estimated $50 million in racing sponsorship.

“What’s more important to me than losing Danica is if we can keep Go Daddy in the series," said Bernard, who added that recent discussions with Go Daddy’s chief marketing officer have left him “optimistic" about the prospects of at least some of that money staying put.

The chief obstacle of attracting such cash, of course, is a truth even Bernard doesn’t deny: Patrick aside, Indy-style racing has lacked star power for a while now.

“We need to do a better job of developing (stars)," Bernard said. “I think it’s a sin that you have someone like Dario Franchitti, who has won so many races, and he’s up there (in terms of public profile), but he’s not, in my opinion, where he could be . . . He’s married to Ashley Judd. He’s very opinionated. (On Thursday) he did 23 different interviews. He’s a hard worker for us. He’s committed. I think we just have to do a better job."

Still, it won’t be easy. IndyCar, once bigger than NASCAR, is a niche sport still recovering from a ruinous split in the series that was only mended in 2008. And star-making is no science. Witness the wide appeal of Patrick, who brings, in Bernard’s estimation, “a different demographic to the track. She’s not bringing the purist or the traditionalist. She brings more women, and more kids."

It’s not as simple as replacing Patrick with another woman; the series has been graced by the presence of a handful of female drivers, none of whom has had the impact of Patrick.

“When you come to the race on Sunday, you’re going to see a lot of kids wearing Danica Patrick shirts. Now, will they switch to (Swiss driver) Simona De Silvestro, or will they pick another person? That’s the unknown question right now," Bernard said. “We’ve got some other great drivers out there. But will they appeal to that same demographic?"

Patrick’s demographic is one that certainly isn’t hung up on results; their hero has enjoyed just that one victory, and she’s had one top-five finish in nine starts this season. Still, while some have likened her to the Anna Kournikova of the tarmac, a mediocre competitor made mega-famous by swimsuit-model appeal, Patrick continues to earn respect, if not titles. A couple of weekends ago, driving an Indy Car that weighs about 1,500 pounds on a short oval track in Iowa, she finished 10th. A week later, driving a NASCAR Nationwide stock car that weighs about 3,400 pounds at Daytona’s super speedway, she finished 10th again—only this time she was among the stars of the show, leading laps down the stretch before some tough luck near the end. And come Sunday she is expected to be a credible contender at the Honda Indy, where she’ll drive that 1,500-some-pound Indy Car on the makeshift street circuit by the lake. That’s impressive versatility, albeit by an also-ran.

“Danica’s a great ambassador to our sport. But it’s like any major sport — when you lose a big name, the sport’s going to go on," Bernard said. “I mean, the day Wayne Gretzky retired from hockey, hockey continued on, and I think that’s the way we’re looking at it."

The problem for IndyCar is that Patrick’s not retiring, she’s moving up in racing’s ranks. So while the CEO is bullish on next year’s introduction of a new-model IndyCar, not to mention the kickoff of competition between engine manufacturers Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus, certainly Bernard wouldn’t be averse to Patrick, say, returning to race annually in the Indy 500. Whatever she’s famous for, she’s beloved for it, too.

“Anytime Danica wants to come over, whether it’s one race or 17 races, it’s still a benefit. Because she does have a good fan base," Bernard said. “We’re not going to burn any bridges, whichever decision she makes. She’ll always be welcome here." Toronto Star

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