It's Now Or Never For Danica Patrick
Nascar's newest driver has a lot riding on 2013
Life isn't fair.
That lesson is one that everyone learns in life sooner or later. Whether it's in school, on an athletic field, in the workplace, or in a relationship, sooner or later that undeniable truth makes its face known in everyone's life. No matter how much we may try to change it, some things happen in life that just aren't fair. If she hadn't learned that lesson before, Danica Patrick is about to face that undeniable truth as she begins her first full season in Nascar's Sprint Cup series.
Unlike last year, Danica isn't saying how she expects to compete for a championship and win races this time around. Instead, she's trying to sound like what she is; a rookie who's taking things one day at a time and is simply happy to be here. In interview after interview, Danica talks about finishing on the lead lap. She talks about gaining the respect of her peers and learning more about just how to handle a stock car at Nascar's highest level. In short, she's saying all the right things.
If life were fair, those are the expectations we as racing fans would have of her.
But life isn't and they aren't the expectations that she will have to meet to succeed. You'll never hear her say it out loud but Patrick knows that there are legions of fans who are rooting for her to fail- and rooting for her to fail simply because she is a woman. While impolitic to say, a certain percentage of racing fans will never accept Danica Patrick's right to be judged strictly as a racer. Why?
They will point to a number of different factors. The fact that she will be driving for a former Indycar champion in Tony Stewart, who of all owners should know what an open wheel racer needs to succeed in a Cup car. They will point to the Hendrick Racing vehicles and technology she will have access to. They will point to the sponsorship dollars backing her ride, sponsorship dollars that few other drivers not named Earnhardt can even dream of. Finally, they will point at the hype that accompanied her entry into Indycar almost a decade ago and how that hype was never justified by the on track performance. That she has all of these things because she has sold herself as a sex symbol not as a racer.
And they will be right about all of these things. Ask Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., two accomplished open wheel drivers, about the opportunities they received in Nascar. Ask Juan Pablo Montoya what it's like trying to make this difficult transition all while driving substandard equipment- then to see someone with less than a quarter of his racing pedigree have the keys to the kingdom virtually handed to her because she can fill out a bathing suit.
A fair statement? Maybe, maybe not. But it's one that all too many fans have in their head right now.
There is only one way that Danica can silence the critics and turn the jeering crowds into adoring fans. And that way is to win- something that as of yet she has not even approached on a non-plate track. Danica needs to run up front and establish herself as worthy of the equipment she is driving. At the very least she cannot be the 3rd ranked driver at Stewart-Haas racing on a weekly basis. By finishing ahead of peers driving similar equipment, Patrick will show that she belongs where she is.
The reason why is very simple. Nascar desperately needs the Danica experiment to be a success. She attracts an audience that has in the past remained closed despite every effort; the cliched “Soccer Mom”. Females aged 25 to 45 are not a large part of Nascar's core demographic yet they make up a huge untapped audience that could lead the financial turnaround so needed by the teams and sanctioning body. Imagine the kinds of sponsors that have never before considered a Nascar sponsorship that may be intrigued by the possibility. And no, I'm not talking a Ricky Bobby-style Massengill car. I'm talking about the kind of Middle America companies that target your stereotypical American family with a husband, a wife, 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. Or perhaps sponsors that may have left the sport as the cost of sponsorship skyrocketed in the last decade (looking at you K-Mart, Tide, Texaco) may suddenly feel that the cost-reward ratio is once again in their favor.
For now, many teams are forced to seek out multiple sponsorships to ensure their cars are fully funded over the course of a year. Yet this kind of multiple-branding lowers the overall value and brand identity of the primary sponsor. When you think of Dale Earnhardt Sr, your mind instantly brings forward the black #3 covered in GM Goodwrench logos. It's impossible to think of Richard Petty without similarly thinking of STP. Few drivers in today's market offer that kind of value to a potential sponsor (with Jimmie Johnson and Lowe's being a notable exception). If I say the name Matt Kenseth, how many of you think of Dewalt, a sponsor that left Kenseth behind years ago? That speaks both to the value of that long-term partnership and the lack of continuity in the sponsors he's had since then. He has a chance to rebuild himself into that kind of brand ambassador for Home Depot; time will tell if he's able to take advantage of it.
Yet what choice do teams have? Charge less per race to try and build a longer-term identity? Go with a blank car for unsponsored raced? Either choice risks falling further behind the fully funded teams who frankly don't care who's on the car that week so long as the check doesn't bounce. If some of the smartest people in racing have failed to solve this problem, it's hardly fair to ask a rookie driver to succeed where they failed. Yet that is the task before Danica Patrick in 2013. In succeeding as an individual, she can prove the rising tide to lift up everyone around her. Those are the stakes she's playing for.
So what happens if she does not succeed? And by that, I mean what happens if she averages a 25th place finish on a weekly basis, one or no top tens, and is the back marker among her peers at Stewart-Haas/Hendrick? Simply put, the momentum will be gone. The casual fans who tuned in to see the “new girl” will be on to other pursuits. The sponsors who considered putting their dollars into Nascar will continue to find other outlets. As an individual, Danica Patrick will have no shortage of potential sponsors for the next decade (assuming GoDaddy ever decides to let her go). Like a handful of others, she is a made driver in a sport where dollars equal opportunities. She can finish in the bottom 10 every single race for the next three years and she will have no trouble in finding a team owner willing to put her in the driver's seat.
However, there's a big difference between having a seat at the table and being a game-changing superstar who lifts an entire sport. The iron is hot and the time to strike is now. She may never change the minds of some of the critics but her story (as told on the Sprint Cup level) is just beginning. And despite the low-ball expectations she's trying to set, there are also reasons to believe she can capitalize on the moment. The very same items (Stewart's ownership, Hendrick equipment, a big-time sponsor) that her critics hold against her will give Danica the tools she needs to be successful.
And ironically enough, there's a model for the jump Danica's looking to make. Imagine it. A driver with limited experience with Nascar's major touring bodies, from a background that isn't your stereotypical southern dirt driver. A driver thrust into the second tier series who had very little success and who most thought wasn't qualified for a ride with Nascar's top division. But there was one fellow driver who believed in him and gave him grade A equipment to run in. A man who believed so much in his potential that he put both his name and his cars behind the rookie. That rookie, despite having never showed the ability to win in a stock car, seized the day and became a five time Nascar Sprint Cup champion.
Unfair expectations? Absolutely. But nobody said life was fair.