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Friday, April 25, 2008

Danica Patrick Notches Historic Win

Danica Patrick raced her way into racing immortality. Can she save American open wheel racing or is Formula 1 her next stop?

Danica Patrick was able to put together a stellar drive and an impeccable fuel strategy to capture her first win in the Indy Car series. Her win marks the first female victory in a major racing series. At the last restart, Patrick was in fifth place and began to fade at the drop of the green flag. Race fans have seen driver performance sag during a late race run due to any number of issues. The car’s handling decreases, tires are worn, and driver fatigue all play roles in late race swoons. However, Patrick dropped back to conserve fuel. As the leaders peeled off for splashes of fuel, Danica found herself in the lead and in line to snatch her first win.

Her win was overdue and it came at a good time for the Indy Racing League. Patrick’s historic victory came on the heels of the merger between the I.R.L. and the ChampCar World Series. The split prevented the stars of each series from competing against each other for over 12 years. The preceding race in St. Petersburg, FL was the second event featuring teams from both the ChampCar and I.R.L. ranks. Graham Rahal, ChampCar regular and son of former Indy car star Bobby, won on the road course in Florida. Fans of the open wheel series are excited and for good reason. This year’s Indy 500

is starting to look like the crown jewel that it was before the split. The Andretti's, a Rahal, Newman Haas Racing, and other figures that called the Speedway home in years past will be in Indiana.

Unfortunately, Danica Patrick has to carry the burden of trying to resurrect a damaged sport rather than concentrating on the race in Kansas leading up to the 500. She is not the only athlete who is being asked to save their struggling sport. In the week following her win in Motegi, Japan, Patrick appeared on every television network in America. She has been on ESPN, appeared on ABC’s “The View,” on the Letterman show, and Fox News with Greta Van Susteren. Danica is a wonderful driving talent but comedic television is not her strong suit. Joining her on a sport crusade is Floyd Mayweather. The welterweight boxing champion has appeared in World Wrestling Entertainment events, dance competitions, and news shows as part of a marketing effort to save boxing. Mayweather has been tabbed as the starter for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Marketing is an essential component of the modern sports formula. The Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts has snatched millions of fans of traditional pugilism. It is eerily similar to the way NASCAR attracted fans of open wheel racing during the split. By placing the most recognizable and supported participants in the limelight, the goal is to lure old fans back and cultivate new fans.

Danica should be allowed to savor her win and focus on the task at hand instead of tackling the media circuit. The victory is monumental and opens up many new opportunities for others. Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James wanted to win just as badly as Danica but were not able to in Indy car competition. They paved the way for Danica Patrick and there has been little to no mention of their struggles. Paramount to saving racing is remembering racing’s past.

Danica posing with her trophy alongside 2nd place finisher Castroneves courtesy of AP photographer Katsumi Kasahara

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