Brant James
Wednesday December 16th, 2009

Terry Angstadt sat at a table on a stage in a darkened Orlando conference hall last week, patiently waiting his turn to espouse the power and the glory of the Izod Indycar Series on huge video panels and through booming speakers. NASCAR's chief marketing officer Steve Phelps was concluding his presentation to the gathered attendees of the Motor Sport Business Forum North America -- the "800-pound gorilla in the room," as organizer Zak Brown dubbed NASCAR, always seems to go first -- and Angstadt had many new developments to share, many pieces of evidence that his open wheel series might finally be making some in-roads back toward a greater identity in American sporting relevance.

But right there, three clicks into Angstadt's video display, a 105-pound gorilla displayed just how much power she has in affecting the futures of both NASCAR and the IndyCar Series.

Under the "brand attributes" list was a massive mug of Indy's most popular driver, media dynamo, and -- three hours later -- official member of NASCAR's JR Motorsports Nationwide Series team for part of the next two seasons at least. Danica Patrick, who made her announcement in Phoenix, can own a room from a half continent away.

She is the image, the marketing tool, the symbol of mainstream potential that will not be suppressed. Her power and her ambition assure that. She has been rather absurdly called the salvation of the Nationwide Series and blamed for being the possible undoing of all that the Indycar Series has recouped in the last few years with her assistance. All this before she ever takes her first laps in a stock car in seven years; even before she determines if she has the skill or the appetite for it.

But Patrick, all five-foot-nothing, overly-firm-handshake and tough-chick demeanor, creates a wave and a wake. Within the darkened room of that Orlando Hilton, four men with a personal interest in that ambition or a vested interest in her future, sat within feet of each other, discussing, debating separately the business of motorsports that she is so certain to impact for the next several years. They were, in effect, the ghosts of Danica past, present and possible future.

We spoke to each of them.

The three-time Champ Car champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500-winner noticed Patrick when she won the Pro Division of the Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race in 2002. He signed her to a contract and began subsidizing her until she made her Indycar debut with Rahal Letterman in 2005. Patrick left after two seasons when they came to an impasse over a new contract, and she sought the greater opportunity provided by the larger Andretti Green Racing team.

SI.com: Having seen Patrick from her earliest days as a professional, how she learns, how she adapts, can she become a competitive stock car driver racing on a very limited basis the next two years?

Rahal: When Danica came into IndyCars, she was fortunate to have two very good teammates (2004 Indianapolis 500-winner Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira). We had the setup. We won four or five races, should have won a championship. Buddy won the 500. So all she had to do was really drive the car. A lot of drivers don't have that. They get in and they have to figure it out. In that respect, she was lucky. Now, I give her all credit. She's consistent for sure. She may not have the ultimate pace, but she stays out of trouble and generally that means she can finish in the top six or seven.

The NASCAR thing: good team, although I don't know the relationship between (Dale Earnhardt Jr.)'s team and (Hendrick Motorsports). His performance is nowhere near (Jimmie) Johnson and (Jeff) Gordon, so it's hard to know just how much information flows back and forth. The biggest thing is the information, how quickly can she learn it. I have no question that she'll be able to drive a stock car around.

It's a chance for her to make some money, I guess. NASCAR is a bigger pond than Indycar, although her popularity exceeds what's available in the IndyCar Series. So, how much bigger is she going to be in NASCAR? She's as big as anyone in NASCAR, to a large extent. So in terms of popularity, is it going to get any better? But she's got smart people, I would presume, behind her at IMG, and with a chance for her to make some money. I think she needs to do that. You never know how long your career is going to be.

SI.com: She's always made it pretty clear that she understood she had to capitalize on her opportunities when presented, right?

Rahal: I think there's probably a window in which you can do that because at some point if you stop doing well in races, then you're marketability declines. Ultimately, she still has to be competitive, but now is the time. There is a lot of interest in her. She had the opportunity and is taking it, and I can understand completely why that would happen.

SI.com: She left Rahal Letterman with that thinking in mind after the 2006 season, correct?

Rahal: I think she felt she was going to get more success there, and if you look at the record, she really didn't. She won a race (at Motegi in 2008), but that was pit strategy. That wasn't pure competiveness. I don't know if it was any better where she was, but Danica was wanting more money than we had a capacity to pay, so I think it all came down to money more than anything else.

SI.com: Do you begrudge her that?

Rahal: No ... well I do believe there is something called loyalty. I think it's fair to say had I not brought Danica in, who knows where she would be right now. She was not doing anything. We sponsored her in Barber Dodge, then two years of Atlantics and then the two years of Indycar. I do believe in loyalty, but I think that's an old guy talking.

SI.com: Is there a risk of her damaging her brand if her NASCAR adventure goes poorly?

Rahal: There certainly is that risk. I think some people can lose credibility, but I don't think you can be afraid of that. I think you have to find the best situation possible and do the best job you can.

The man charged with raising the profile of the IndyCar Series stood in a ballroom at the Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg days before the season-opener last spring and declared that the IRL would survive, Patrick or not. Even with that bold thesis closer to being put into the crucible, Angstadt remains confident that open wheel racing can survive, at least, without its most ubiquitous character. That said, he hopes she stays.

SI.com: Is the league nervous about its iconic driver exploring other series?

Angstadt: We were thrilled to see Andretti Autosport sign her. That's fantastic, that's stability. I think she is driven to win an Indy 500, to win races, and I think she has put herself in a position to do that. I think she has the opportunity to kind of stick her toe in the water in NASCAR and that is absolutely fine. I wish her the best. We'll see from the competition standpoint if she fits in that particular form of motorsports. I think it will be a wonderful challenge for her.

And we will derive IndyCar exposure because of who she is. I think she is known as an IndyCar driver, and it's fantastic. There are no concerns and we absolutely wish her the best and think we'll get a lot of exposure in the process.

SI.com: Unless there is a conspiracy afoot, you figure to gain a lot of free advertising on Nationwide Series broadcasts.

Angstadt: This morning, I noticed on the news cycles all IndyCar footage, all her jumping out of the car, Bobby embracing her after her fourth-place finish as a rookie. All good stuff.

SI.com: She's been portrayed as the magic fix for all that ails racing, to an unfair extent. But can she help racing in general as a crossover star?

Angstadt: I think she will help motorsports. I know that she is a fulltime IndyCar driver. It's where she's come from. It's where she built her reputation, image and brand, and I think we will continue to be the biggest beneficiary of that. And if she makes a decision some day. . .good for her.

SI.com: What kind of boon will Patrick be to NASCAR, even in the short term?

Phelps: We're thrilled that Danica is going to come over and look at our style of racing. I think we can help her and she can help us. I think it will help the IRL as well, bring exposure to both series.

SI.com: Could there be too much emphasis on her during Speed Weeks, when she's not even competing in one of the top-three series openers?

Phelps: I don't think so. I think there will certainly be an interest with the core fan with Danica and how she'll do and the excitement around that. The core fan is going to be following their drivers and what their drivers are doing, so I don't think it's going to be overshadowed. There will be strong stories around the Daytona 500 and our biggest race of the year.

SI.com: How can NASCAR benefit from her magnetism, popularity?

Phelps: I think Danica will bring some new fans and some casual fans to NASCAR. It's our job, hopefully with her, to keep them as she progresses, and hopefully she will, into our top series, to show them our style of racing and what that means and how that differs from the current series that she's in.

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