The odds are stacked against her but Danica Patrick is in with a chance of winning her final IndyCar race, the 102nd Indianapolis 500. Interest in the 36-year-old’s return is expected to exceed that of the ‘Alonso-mania’ experienced in 2017, as she completes the final part of her ‘Danica Double’.
But amongst all the hype and excitement, would a victory for the one-off, soon-to-retire racer be a fairytale for IndyCar?
Final race, fairytale result
There is no denying it would be a final chapter worthy of Hollywood (without the sleaze and Harvey Weinstein thankfully). Victory for Patrick in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 would whip the mainstream US media into a frenzy.
The return to her roots; the book-end to her career; winning the ‘big one’ in her last race – the storylines are plentiful. As surely would be the promotional mileage for the race, Patrick and IndyCar.
With diversity and equal opportunity rightly in the spotlight, crowning the first female winner of the 500 would be both appropriate and overdue. Combined with the natural allure of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, it would all but guarantee top billing and a busy schedule for Patrick on the talk-show circuit.
All good so far and with the Indy 500 being Danica’s last race, the former Daytona 500 polesitter would have plenty of time to promote the heck out of IndyCar. But in reality, this is where things start to look a little shaky.
How do you promote a ‘missing’ driver?
Once the initial 7-10 days of intense media coverage of a Danica Patrick win burns itself out, what comes next? For starters, IndyCar as a championship has a problem: an Indy 500 champion that will not race again. Not just for the rest of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar season but permanently.
All the familiar angles that might allow the series to bask in the reflected glow of its blue riband event disappear pretty quickly.
There are no storylines about whether she can go on to win the championship. No crowds flocking to see the first woman to win the 500 race at Iowa, Portland or Pocono. No enhanced mainstream media interest for the remainder of the season.
On the flip side, it would pave the way for Patrick for the rest of her life. Movie rights, books, autobiographies, appearances, merchandise, motivational speaking tours. If you can think of it, brand it and trademark it, Danica’s name will be on it as the first female winner.
Meanwhile IndyCar would be left, perhaps hopelessly, trying to convince mainstream media that the championship is just as relevant as the 500.
The ‘Superbowl’ problem
Seasoned fans of open wheel racing know that this stems from a long-standing issue: maintaing interest in a championship that keeps going after its ‘Superbowl’. In the same way NASCAR has never solved their Daytona 500 problem, how to soften the blow remains the best form of defence.
Despite the efforts of IndyCar, sponsors, broadcasters, specialist media and myriad other partners over time, John and Jane Doe switch off after the milk is poured in Victory Lane. Even with IndyCar drivers coached to talk about a 500 win and the IndyCar championship in equal terms, the natural drain in interest remains.
A winning driver returning to the fray week-in-week-out dampens the effects a little. But one that will take no further part in the rest of the season is genuinely problematic.
A win by Patrick or any of the other one-off/part-time entries narrows the window of opportunity markedly. And before anyone decides this piece is about gender, it would have been exactly the same if Fernando Alonso had won in 2017 or Kurt Busch back in 2014. It was certainly the case for the old IRL when Juan Pablo Montoya gave them a bloody nose in 2000.
Does a part-timer diminish the value of the series?
This exact question was posed when Alonso and Busch completed their one-off entries. How would it look if either driver beat the regulars? Especially when IndyCar actively promotes – quite rightly – the unique challenge of its diversity and strength of competition.
It is no different for Danica this time around. She has raced at Indy continuously since 2005 but the last time she crossed the yard of bricks in an IndyCar was 2011. 7 years out of the cockpit is a long time in any form of motorsport, but particularly for one so demanding mentally and physically.
It is a moot point as to whether IndyCar drivers are in fact the best in world but there is a strong case to be made. A win by an Alonso, Busch or Danica Patrick this year has the potential to really undermine that.
An Indy 500 win for Danica Patrick: good or bad for IndyCar?
As with all of the most interesting storylines in sport, it depends on your perspective.
Victory for Patrick this month would be a huge media coup for IndyCar in the short term. For young women dreaming of pursuing their racing career it could be a profoundly historic moment.
Whether it would be the best result for IndyCar and its long-term rehabilitation is debatable.