The mainstream media is again buzzing about open-wheel racing. But why? Not because the Indy Racing League put on a darn good race Sunday afternoon at the Milwaukee Mile.
No, the stick-and-ball stalwarts are all excited because they heard four mean-spirited drivers from Andretti Green Racing boycotted a mandatory autograph session on Saturday, apparently in some sort of a misguided protest against all the attention and preferential treatment Danica Patrick has been getting for the last two months.
The AGR party line is that Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta were available to fans at the team's merchandise trailer at the same time and that the walkout from the IndyCar autograph session was a management decision that had nothing to do with the drivers. Andretti Green management is expected to meet with IndyCar officials in Indianapolis on Tuesday afternoon and the team could face a fine or sanction from the league.
So then, just what did AGR's action accomplish? Instead of being known as a team that has won six races this year, a team that is again dominating the IndyCar Series, AGR will be portrayed as a group of crybabies who can't handle the fact that Danica continues to dominate the headlines.
AGR, and Wheldon in particular, are in the unfortunate position of winning races when winning a race -- even the Indianapolis 500 -- isn't IndyCar's biggest story. Danica Mania has spread beyond sports boundaries to the point where it is a full-fledged media phenomenon that will surely make for a great case study some day. Ten races into her IndyCar career, she's already a self-sustaining industry.
As such, Rahal Letterman Racing and IndyCar aren't responsible for the fact that the demand for Danica's autograph is greater than it is for the series' other drivers, even race- and championship-winning drivers like AGR's popular veterans. The PR flacks haven't had to pitch Danica as a story since she started running up front at Indy during the month of May and as long as she continues to perform reasonably well on the track, she's going to capture the media's focus.
Still, it's got to be galling for a guy like Sam Hornish Jr., who scored his record 14th IndyCar Series race win at Milwaukee, to walk into an autograph session and see signs directing fans one way for Danica Patrick and the other way for "All Other Drivers."
It should be pointed out that in no other sport do fans get such open access to the performing athletes. IndyCar (and the Champ Car World Series) offer spectators the opportunity to meet and greet all of their heroes at every venue, something you won't find in baseball, football or basketball -- or NASCAR, for that matter. When one driver is more popular than the others, no matter what the reason, it's difficult to tailor the logistics of the situation to everyone's satisfaction -- and there's no room for hurt feelings.
The person I feel sorry for the most in all of this nonsense is Danica herself. She's handled herself with dignity and class throughout Danica Mania. When you get down to it, she's a 23-year-old girl working in an unusual profession who didn't ask to be thrust into such a harsh and glaring spotlight. Remember, this is a girl who set out to make the pages of Racer magazine, not People magazine. Those of us who have followed her career for years already know she's a good race-car driver. Now she's proving to be a damn fine celebrity as well.
But that's a double-edged sword, because to maintain her celebrity cachet, she's going to have to start winning races at some point and develop into a great race-car driver. And that's more difficult than it looks; it took the average IndyCar driver 33 races to reach victory circle, which for Danica, would be near the end of the 2006 season. Can the mainstream media maintain interest for that long?
The most surprising thing about the whole autograph session fiasco is that anyone would do anything to publicly knock Danica. Remember what happened when NASCAR driver Robby Gordon came out with some comments about IndyCar's rules about driver weight that were perceived as anti-Danica? He got ridiculed. And that's what's going to happen here to the AGR quartet.
The moral of the story is this: Don't Diss Danica. Even if you're right.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.