Time for Danica (The Race Car Driver) to step it up

November, 30, 2009

Danica Patrick (The Celebrity), representing Danica Patrick (The Brand), appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday to announce that Danica Patrick (The Race Car Driver) will continue to make competing in the Izod IndyCar Series her primary occupation for the next three years.

Joined by Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti, Patricck revealed that her No. 7 car will enjoy primary sponsorship from GoDaddy.com, the controversial Web domain vendor and Web site developer. No mention was made of the N-word (NASCAR).

Although the news is good for the IndyCar Series, which can now theoretically count on keeping its most recognizable and marketable star for the foreseeable future, my initial reaction was: Who cares?

Honestly, this non-story has been festering for the past 10 months. I asked Patrick questions about her contract year back in February at IndyCar Series media days, and, frankly, she was more forthcoming about it then than would prove to be the case throughout the summer and fall.

A series of red herrings (Patrick to Chip Ganassi's IndyCar team! Danica to Team USF1! Patrick to NASCAR!) got Patrick offsides with the specialty motorsports media and did little to disguise the fact that her only realistic career option moving forward was to continue in the IndyCar Series with Andretti, who has employed her since 2007.

The two top teams in open-wheel racing -- Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing -- passed on the opportunity to employ Patrick, because Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are motivated by performance, not publicity.

And it's in that regard that Patrick (The Race Car Driver) has fallen short of expectations during her three years with the team formerly known as Andretti Green Racing. Sure, her public profile is higher than ever -- thanks in part to those suggestive (some might say tasteless) GoDaddy commercials. But despite the historic first Indy car victory for a female driver she achieved in April 2008, Patrick is arguably less competitive on a regular basis these days than she was as a rookie driving for Bobby Rahal's team back in 2005.

She led 63 laps back in '05, but only 47 in the four years since. She claimed three pole positions in her rookie campaign but hasn't been the top qualifier since.

Certainly, Patrick is a more consistent performer these days. In 2009, her third-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 and fifth-place overall in the IndyCar standings represented career bests. But she never actually ran near the front or threatened to win a race.

Admittedly, the entire Andretti Autosport team has been in a state of decline for the past two years, and Patrick -- not to mention Michael Andretti -- must be hoping that the once-dominant organization that won three IndyCar Series championships and two Indianapolis 500s between 2004 and 2007 finds its competitive mojo again.

AA's major problem for the past couple of years appeared to be a lack of cooperation and consideration between the drivers. The "me first" attitude that Patrick and Marco Andretti seem to share is in direct contrast to the team-oriented outlook espoused by former AGR drivers Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta.

Lost in the euphoria of the IndyCar Series maintaining ties with Patrick and AA inking GoDaddy.com to a three-year contract is the fact that the team and the series are losing a blue-chip sponsor in Motorola. The electronics giant was represented on the CART or IndyCar Series grid since 1994.

Questions also remain about Patrick's long-term commitment to Indy car racing; she has openly courted NASCAR teams for the past two years and it appears likely that her GoDaddy.com connections will land her a part-time Nationwide Series deal with JR Motorsports, the team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

That potential pairing already has pundits poking fun at the notion that America's two most popular drivers are almost indisputably America's two most overrated racers. Despite dominating mainstream media headlines and merchandise sales, Patrick and Earnhardt have combined for exactly two fuel-strategy-driven race wins in the past three years.

The bottom line: Now that Danica Patrick (The Brand) and Danica Patrick (The Celebrity) are firmly established, maybe it's time for Danica Patrick to refocus on becoming a top-flight race car driver.

Isn't that why she started racing in the first place?



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