Indy-car drivers provide stock answers to questions about Danica Patrick
BY HERB GOULD firstname.lastname@example.org May 18, 2012 8:24PM
Updated: July 1, 2012 12:21PM
INDIANAPOLIS — Time and CNN won’t pay much attention. Neither will the gossipy entertainment shows or a host of other non-sports magazines.
But Indy-car racers aren’t shedding tears as they prepare for the Indianapolis 500 with another face-lifted Pole Day on Saturday minus Danica Patrick.
They’re eager to spread their aerodynamic wings without the boost of their erstwhile media darling, who now is turning left in a stock car.
‘‘I’m not sure how this is all going to get written,’’ owner Bobby Rahal said Thursday when I asked him to assess the pluses and minuses of Life After Danica, ‘‘but at least we get to focus on the racing now and the people who are here — who are damn good drivers.’’
Rahal started Danica-mania in 2005, when he hired the feisty young woman from Rockton, Ill. Patrick created a sensation by starting and finishing fourth at Indy in a Rahal-Letterman car.
‘‘In the end, I wish her well,’’ Rahal said. ‘‘I brought her into this series. But now, as it should be, it’s all about the racing. Danica did great things for this series, but I think oftentimes perhaps at the expense of the series. It was a yin and a yang. The other drivers that were here didn’t get the attention they should have gotten. Now we get to get back to what it’s all about, which is great racing.’’
For all the attention and sponsor dollars Patrick brought in by competing in a man’s world and looking good doing it, she also brought jealousy along Gasoline Alley, where other drivers resented the fuss about a driver who won only one race during her seven years on the Indy-car circuit.
Questioning Danica-mania is like questioning the obsessions with Dale Earnhardt Jr. or post-traumatic Tiger Woods. Some athletes simply transcend the usual performance-oriented barometers.
But it’s understandable that the fascination irritates other competitors.
Even Dario Franchitti, Patrick’s friend and mentor when they drove together on the Andretti team, seemed uncomfortable with the subject.
‘‘There’s been no impact for me,’’ Franchitti said when I asked him about the impact of losing the spotlight Patrick brought. ‘‘It’s not affecting me on or off the track.’’
Echoing Rahal, IndyCar chief executive officer Randy Bernard said the series hopes the loss of its biggest star to NASCAR will mean a bigger spotlight for its more accomplished drivers. He even hinted at why Franchitti squirmed at the mention of Patrick.
‘‘At the beginning of the season, you scratch your head and say, ‘Gee, I hope everything we’ve been saying is true, but we’re going to find out real quick,’ ’’ Bernard said. ‘‘Danica was great for the sport, but she was an umbrella that took the spotlight off of drivers like Dario.’’
That’s unfortunate, Bernard said, because Franchitti, who has two Indy 500 victories among his 30 Indy-car checkered flags, needs two more wins to move into
seventh place on the all-time list, more than anybody not named Foyt, Andretti or Unser.
‘‘When you put Dario in perspective, how many wins he has and the caliber of where he’s at, he’s right up there,’’ Bernard said. ‘‘We have this great legend that doesn’t resonate. That’s a disappointment to me.’’
Franchitti — who hopes to celebrate his 39th birthday Saturday with his first Indy 500 pole — also is handsome and charming, has an irresistible Scottish accent and is married to Ashley Judd.
That ought to be a good start on Life After Danica. That’s especially true because the series has a solid new car, a budding Honda-Chevrolet engine rivalry and a strong contingent of accomplished, under-appreciated drivers.
But we’ll find out.
‘‘Maybe we don’t have that great personality, which now NASCAR has, whether it’s Earnhardt or [Patrick],’’ Rahal said. ‘‘Now it’s all about the racing. Which is what it all should have been about in the first place.’’