No Danica, no problem for Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- You might think Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials are losing sleep, panicked by the news that Danica Patrick won't be competing in the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

Then again, maybe they're not.

The Indianapolis 500 has survived two World Wars, the rear-engine revolution of the 1960s, the death of Tony Hulman and two major splits within Indy car racing (USAC-CART and CART-IRL) to remain the biggest and historically most significant auto race in America.

They ran 88 Indianapolis 500-mile races before Danica Patrick turned a wheel at the Brickyard, and they're going to stage countless more after she's gone. So the absence of one driver, no matter how popular, is not going to bring the event crashing down.

Not the absence of Danica.

Not even the absence of the late Dan Wheldon, who tragically will not be defending his Indy 500 title.

From a competition standpoint, the absence of two-time Indianapolis winner Wheldon from the field will hurt the race more than not having Patrick, whose best finish in the 500 was third place in 2009.

But from a pop culture and mainstream media standpoint, Patrick's nonappearance can't help the event. She simply draws attention wherever she goes.

Did Patrick deliver some new fans to the Indianapolis 500? Undoubtedly. But will her absence from the race this year have a significant effect on attendance and attention? Not likely.

"Clearly, Danica is one of our more celebrated drivers," said Doug Boles, vice president of communications for Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "She led laps at the Speedway, and her rookie year was a big moment in the history of the Speedway.

"Would we like to see her back at the 500 someday? Of course. But with all due respect, 737 drivers have competed in the Indianapolis 500 over the last century and it's a big deal when any one of them doesn't come back."

Just from the past 15 years, Boles cited a pair of other Indy car champions who moved on to NASCAR.

"A handful of Indy car stars have moved on, really beginning with Tony Stewart in the Indy Racing League days," he said. "Sam Hornish Jr. had some popularity in Indy cars.

"The only difference with Danica is that she's female and that brings a different kind of microscope. In IndyCar, there are several other female drivers participating who are in position to fill that void."

Several of the finest moments of Patrick's seven-year Indy car career occurred at IMS, from the moment she made a spectacular save to avoid crashing in the very first corner of her first-ever qualifying lap in 2005. She went on to lead 32 laps in the race to claim Rookie of the Year honors after finishing fourth.

Patrick finished in the top 10 at Indianapolis in six of her seven starts, racing competitively against Indy 500 fields that were arguably as strong as any era in the long history of the great race.

Indy also was the site of one of Danica's most controversial moments. During an interview that was piped over the track public address system after qualifying 23rd fastest in 2010, Patrick dropped an "It's not my fault" sound bite that quickly went viral and tarnished her image with even her most ardent admirers.

The historic fourth-place finish at Indy as a rookie not only put Patrick on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it also sparked a media frenzy that pretty much marginalized every other Indy car driver and later contributed to strained relationships with her teammates.

And that's the double-edged sword that is part of the Danica package: She delivers eyeballs, media attention and marketing dollars. But she also brings a tremendous backlash.
On social media outlets, an overwhelming majority of Indy car fans have expressed pleasure that Patrick has departed for NASCAR and that media coverage of the Indy 500 and other IndyCar Series races will no longer feature such an intense focus on Danica.

They predict the treatment "other" Indy car drivers got during the Danica era is coming to NASCAR. The Daytona 500 is already being advertised as featuring "Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, rookie sensation Danica Patrick and the other drivers of the NASCAR series."

The likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch will undoubtedly say all the right things publicly, but you've got to figure that so much attention being paid to a part-time driver running in the middle of the pack will eventually get under their skin.

The legion of supporters Patrick takes with her to NASCAR is unique. For the most part, her fans aren't really racing fans; they're Danica fans, and in that respect, her fan base is similar to that of a reality television show star. Patrick works hard to keep her private life private, but her career is playing out on a very public stage.

In fact, Danica -- right down to the fact that she's known by one iconic name -- could be viewed as a reality television star who happens to operate within the backdrop of professional auto racing. The overall theme of her life has been "The Great Race."

Now her career is undergoing an "Extreme Makeover." Think of jumping from IndyCar to the NASCAR Sprint Cup as going from "Survivor" to "Big Brother." But first, a season of "The Apprentice" in the Nationwide Series.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the grand champion survivor of racetracks, prepares for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500. Danica Patrick won't be there, but the news isn't all bad.

She's already made plans to return to IMS later in 2012 to compete in the Nationwide race during the NASCAR Brickyard 400 weekend. And that's an event struggling for attendance that needs Danica's brand of magic far more than the Indianapolis 500 does.

"She'll be here, it just won't be in May," Boles said. "She'll be in the Nationwide race and there's still talk that she could run the Brickyard 400 Cup race. We're talking to her people and we'd certainly like to use her in the promotion for the event.

"We might see her racing two times at Indianapolis on the same weekend, which would certainly be interesting."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.