The Big W

Posted by Iannucci | 4/22/2008 | 15 comments »
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Sherman, set the WABAC machine to 2005, when Danica Patrick stomped the gas and stormed to lead late in the Indianapolis 500. After having her lead threatened by Dan Wheldon with a handful of laps to go, Danica hit the overtake button to defend her lead as hundreds of thousands erupted in cheering at IMS, as did millions of others watching on TV worldwide. Danica became Danica!.

But despite the ensuing years of publicity, the dream seemed to have ended there. Her crew told her she was low on fuel and she had to let others pass and finish in fourth. Observant fans soured on her ability, pointing out that she benefited from being one of the few drivers to have Honda power that year. Another 45 races would pass, each one bringing more sneers towards this unabashed and self-promoting girl and further embarrassment for IndyCar fans who had to endure the ribbing that our sport’s most popular driver was a winless farce.

Her arrival in 2005 was supposed to be a great moral victory, the culmination of the quest for gender equality in racing initiated by Janet Guthrie. But moral victories always show up in the loss column, and despite the best attempts of Danica!, Lyn St James and Sarah Fisher the girls just couldn’t score the win. That is until this weekend when the Big “W” – the real victory, moral and otherwise – finally arrived, giving frenzied media types reason to waste time asking Danica! when she’s going to win again.

Unfortunately this monumental occasion has been met with resistance by those who say this win doesn’t count because it was based on fuel strategy. Weak. I guess Dario Franchitti has to give back his 2007 hardware since his two biggest wins were claimed on fuel conservation and weather strategy. Anything less than the fastest car and you might as well go home, right? (I’m looking at you Bob Margolis and Gregg Doyel, and I’m sending the Diecast Dude over to knock some sense into you.)

There are many ways to win a race, and the best a driver can do is put himself or herself into a position to utilize any of them. A lot of that starts before the race in trying to be with the best possible team, a lot of it rests in the hands of engineers and pit crew members, and a lot of it is up to chance. Those are all parts of racing – heck, any sport – and to count any of them as reflecting negatively towards a driver is simply ignorant. Or in this case sexist, but frankly I don’t really want to go there.

Look, you don’t have to be Danica!’s biggest fan to know how much her success means to open-wheel racing, and as such it makes no sense to try to diminish her victory with absurdities like saying the other drivers let her win or it doesn’t count if she wins on fuel strategy. She won, legitimately, against the best in the league, period. So for all of those who are trying to find a way to diminish this historic victory, take a breath and step back from the bitterness. Just because you would rather watch Helio climb a fence or Dan Wheldon spin some donuts doesn’t mean this win needs to be downplayed.

People don’t watch races to see cancer cured; they want to live vicariously, feel the visceral thrill, and maybe even find a hero in an increasingly cynical world. And in this context that petite brunette who doubles as a swimsuit exhibitionist fits the bill. Think of the women who carry a chip on their shoulder in the workplace. Think of the hormonally charged boys (regardless of age). Think of the young girls who want to compete with the other gender. Think of people who want to see something different in sports. Think of the folks who cheer exclusively for Americans. Think of Todd Harris.

All of these people find themselves watching races, buying tickets and scooping up Patrick’s merchandise not because of what she has done but because they of what they want her to do. And for them, the millions of Fanicas, their driver finally won. And you know what else? OUR driver won, because like or not among non-race fans Danica! is the most prominent face of this series, and her victory on Sunday just helped that face go from “farce” to simply “over-hyped”.

Just yesterday your humble host was driving in to work and listening to a local morning show host enthusiastically babble about – you guessed it – Danica Patrick. Nothing like hearing how in the closing laps “Danica took the pole” (Hello!) from “Helio Castro-novus”. Ah, well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Color her overrated if you want, but name a sport that doesn’t have an overrated superstar. (*cough* Dale Junior *cough*) Hype is all around, and yes the Danica! promotion is only going to grow even more monstrous from here. But the AGR driver has finally fulfilled her promise, and in doing so she’s lifted the monkey not just off her back, but also off the backs of her fans as well as fans of the entire sport.


  1. Johnny // April 22, 2008 8:28 AM  

    Ooooh the bombardment you'll get on that Dale Jr. comment.

    Let's see, 17 wins against 43 car deep fields vs. 1 win against an 18 deep car field, yet she has reached *fulfillment*?

  2. Jeff Iannucci // April 22, 2008 8:31 AM  

    I know, I know. I'm NOT saying he's not talented, and I'm NOT equating his ability in his sport with hers, but I AM SAYING he's overhyped and overrated in proportion to the amount of success he's had on a race track.

    And I'm also NOT saying there's anythign wrong with that - it's just the way to world works, and our little Mrs Hospenthal is no exception.

  3. pressdog // April 22, 2008 9:03 AM  

    I give Danica this: She won fair and square by driving smart and working with her genius strategist, Kyle Moyer, when her competitors apparently couldn't do the same. Her win is as legit as Hornish's turn 4 pass to win Indy in 2006. She and her posse handled the post-win mayhem with a lot of class and grace. As Janet Guthrie said, if you didn't think Danica had a serious chance to win every race given all the factors in her favor -- her talent being one of them -- you just haven't been paying attention. I can easily give her all that -- along with my congratulations and respect -- without being a Danica fan. Danica seems like a tough, fair competitor, which is all I ask. I also give Danica credit for being the same Danica throughout her career so far. Whether her style and personality appeal to you as a fan is an individual decision. If every driver in the league appealed to my fan tastes, the league would be a very dull thing for 90% of the rest of the world, so I embrace the diversity.

  4. The American Mutt // April 22, 2008 9:10 AM  

    17 wins out of close to three hundred races is not exactly a great track record. Just sayin'. Also, can the forty three deep talk. They've got twice as many backmarkers as the IRL. The winners coming from one of about eighteen cars. Not really that much better than the IRL. Statistically worse. I'm with Jeff on this one--not saying he's not talented etc...

    Incidentily--, skill, team work, and LOTS OF LUCK. Lots of Luck Should never diminish the big win.

    Great post Jeff.

  5. Carrie // April 22, 2008 9:22 AM  

    Jeff... the whatever percent of the NASCAR audience that doesn't hang on Junior's every last word, and the rare rational Junior fan, would agree with you.

  6. mmack // April 22, 2008 9:25 AM  


    Has anyone asked Jr. how he feels about Danica's first win?


  7. Johnny // April 22, 2008 9:31 AM  

    American Mutt: Field size does matter, even if there are a greater number of back markers, that's still more cars you have to lap/dodge to get a win in.

    The Danica/Dale Jr. comparison for off the track marketability is an apt one, they both have larger than life images that people either love or hate. But statistically Danica still has a ways to go to match Dale Jr's "overrated" on track statistics.

  8. Johnny // April 22, 2008 9:32 AM  

    Mmack: Hahaha.

    Question 2 would be "Dale, what would your dad think about Danica's win...if he were with us today?

  9. The American Mutt // April 22, 2008 10:06 AM  


    All good points. Believe me, I'm not trying to downplay Dale Jr.s on track performance. Actually, I'm saying the two are too different to draw a comparison with respect to where they race.

    For the record, I generally think Danica is overrated, but good for the league so I accept her. She gets a bad rep though--most of the other drivers are just as bitchy coming of an accident or screw up. The difference is she's got fifty times the media pressure as them.

  10. mmack // April 22, 2008 10:07 AM  

    Question 2 would be "Dale, what would your dad think about Danica's win...if he were with us today?

    Only if ol' DeeDubbleya is askin' the questions.

    "Now, lemme' get my brother Mikey up here for his opinion . . . . "

  11. Jeff Iannucci // April 22, 2008 10:14 AM  

    Speaking of, check out the gracious words from Dee Dubbleya.

  12. Shellhead // April 22, 2008 10:18 AM  

    I have no problem with Danica winning, nor how she did it. I have a massive problem with ESPN turning the league into Danica-vision for the next couple of years. We've got a full field of quality drivers for the first time in more than a decade and you better believe they've all just become totally irrelevant in the eyes of the media. Graham Rahal? He's back to "nobody" status. Helio? He won't have to worry about too many more dancing references. Pick any driver - if they win EVERY race from this point on, it won't be nearly as interesting to the press or casual fans as will Danica's finishing position.

    And honestly, I see that as a bad thing for the sport.....yeah, crazy I know. But I really think there will be casual fans who take a look, but they won't stay interested until Danica wins often. Last time Danica peaked I took a non-fan to the Michigan race - they loved Danica because she was an empowering woman - they were blown away by the racing......and they never went back because Danica didn't win. Danica fans will be like that - race fans, not so much. So with a chance to build real, lasting momentum, I see the Danica! fad resurfacing, and in five years we'll be back where we started.

    I have to make one other observation - Danica seemed TOTALLY disinterested in her victory. When Gil DeFerran won the 500, he went nuts - it was awesome! Even "Stone-Cold-Sam-Hornish" was excited when he won a race! With Danica, she gets a win (which she wanted all her life) and she squeezes out a tear and then sits stone-faced during the victory lap. wow - way to show emotion!

  13. Johnny // April 22, 2008 10:27 AM  

    American Mutt:

    I hear you, I just wanted to get all the points out there. I definitely agree with you on Danica's value to the league and the double standard she's held to. She's no less of a complainer than any of the other big seven (except maybe Dixon, who seems rather insouciant at times) when things head south.

    Anyone with thoughts on how Danica's win will get Gossage'd in the hype for the Texas race?

  14. Derek // April 22, 2008 11:11 AM  

    >> Speaking of, check out the gracious words from Dee Dubbleya.

    That was a tease and you know it, I was hoping for Thunda Dan's commentary. I can only imagine the words that will come out of his mouth about this...

  15. SS Minnow // April 22, 2008 7:57 PM  

    I want everyone to read the following link from the Charlotte Observer (my local paper). David Poole is a good NASCAR "beat" writer but has often taken a punk shot at IRL/Champ Car. Prior to Daytona he made the comment that NASCAR's biggest threat was the rumors that the split was coming to an end. He quickly followed the statement with...."Not!!". I think he commented on how the economy in general was the real threat therefore keeping the hard earned dollars of the fan base in their own pockets instead of merchandise and tickets. Anyway, I about spit out my coffee as my jaw continued to drop wide open while reading his comments. In the article, he commends DP's accomplishment, knocks a few of the NASCAR "stars", recognizes the IRL is on the verge of a perfect script to start the season, and jokingly says NASCAR will cause it's own controversy and sets up a possible Junior "call" at Dega. It's a good read and shocking coming from this part of the world.

    Also, as an FYI, a new road course is going in 30 miles north of Charlotte that is heralded as being a world class facility with safety approval from NASCAR, SCCA and F1. Paging Dr. Andretti, paging Dr. Andretti. I know the chances are like the proverbial snowball, but man I would love to see a stake driven right into the heart of NASCAR country. Check out High Rock Raceway.