STEAM CORNERS, Ohio -- The pursuit of Danica Patrick continues and most signs indicate she will switch from the IZOD IndyCar Series to the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2012, with perhaps seven races in Cup. And while that deal is far from being completed, many in IndyCar are already preparing for life without Danica next season. How would her departure affect the series? Would TV ratings plummet, would ticket sales suffer? Those in the industry have mixed thoughts on those issues as they await official word on whether she's staying or going.
"I'm a realist," says Randy Bernard, the CEO of IndyCar, "and my opinion is where there is smoke there is fire. I don't have time to dwell on whether she is or isn't going; my job is to build the series with who is here. We'd love for her to stay. But if she came to me with a wish list of what it would take for her to stay, I'd do whatever I [could]. But IndyCar has played its role and she will make that decision whether she will stay or not in the near future.
"I also believe she will help the Nationwide Series significantly," added Bernard. "She will give them a bump because she brings a lot of attention with her. I give GoDaddy a tremendous amount of credit because they found a very attractive sports athlete that was a good driver and were able to leverage her and showcase her in an edgy way that showcases GoDaddy.com. That is the one sponsor I don't want to lose in our series because they really understand how to build a superstar. When you look at the money they poured into helping build Danica Patrick, that is what I'm more concerned about losing -- the Super Bowl ads and all the things that developed her into what she is today."
Bernard says IndyCar will continue to grow with or without Patrick.
"If you look at Michael Jordan -- the greatest of the greats -- it didn't bring the NBA down when he left," Bernard said. "But the difference is a person like Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan was winning every single week. Danica's exposure has been built by GoDaddy ... but she has won one race. We need to remember [that is] what made Danica.
"I wish her the best. But I'm also very excited about our opportunity because I do not believe we will see a decrease in our ratings or our attendance. The three most recent races of 2011 have landed in the top five IndyCar telecasts ever on Versus for total delivery. If you asked in those three races if Danica Patrick was the reason to watch, I would say no."
In some ways, IndyCar may actually benefit if Patrick leaves because many of its top drivers and great storylines have been overshadowed by her presence. There's no denying that at times she has sucked all the air out of the room when it comes to attention and publicity. That's a testament to how well she has parlayed her attractive looks, engaging personality and fiery competitiveness on the racetrack into a cultural phenomenon, making her a cross between a talented race driver and someone who is "famous for being famous."
Her actual accomplishments, however, fall considerably short of her level of fame. In 110 IndyCar Series starts since the beginning of the 2005 season, she has one win, 20 top-fives, 60 top-10 finishes and three poles. While those aren't bad numbers, they pale considerably to the numbers racked up by drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Will Power during the same time period.
Of course, it's doubtful anybody wants to see those drivers posing in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue or in risqué apparel on GoDaddy commercials. The reality is Patrick is able to generate tremendous attention, but that doesn't necessarily sell tickets or increase television ratings.
"Danica Patrick is an anomaly," says Kevin Savoree of Savoree Green Promotions. "She led a few laps at Indianapolis in 2005 but have [IndyCar] TV ratings and attendance gone up since then? No. And at places where they have, it hasn't been because of her; it's because of the entire product. Danica Patrick is a great athlete but so are Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Will Power. Danica sells a lot of souvenirs but she doesn't sell tickets."
Savoree has keen insight into Patrick because he was once one of the co-owners of her current IndyCar Series team. He also was heavily involved in her first contract with what was then known as Andretti Green Racing at the end of the 2006 season. And he's not alone in his beliefs. Eddie Gossage, the president and general manager of Texas Motor Speedway, echoed some of those same thoughts.
"Danica means a great deal because she draws the spotlight and she is clearly the most popular driver in IndyCar racing so she is vitally important to IndyCars," Gossage says. "But I can tell you we had the first race after her big breakthrough at Indy in 2005 and we didn't see ticket sales improve. One driver doesn't sell tickets; it takes all of them. What that means to IndyCar as she moves to NASCAR in 2012 and beyond: it's not good -- you'd like to have her stay in IndyCars but it's not going to pull the rug out from under the series, either."
Gossage revealed that the IndyCar Series crowds at Texas have been flagging since 2004 -- one year before Patrick joined the series.
"We didn't see ticket sales take off and I don't think we will see the bottom drop out," Gossage said. "As a person who loves IndyCar racing, I wish she would stay in IndyCars. But she needs to do what she needs to do and I understand that. Danica might sell a lot of souvenirs. You can put Dale Jr. in a Nationwide race on a Saturday and you will still pretty much have the same crowd you would otherwise have. Jimmie Johnson is going to run in a Nationwide race at Watkins Glen and their crowd will be the same as they would otherwise have. It's like nailing jelly to the wall. It's hard to put a figure on it. It helps, but you can't tell how much."
Patrick finished 21st in the IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio on Sunday, and it was probably one of the most forgettable weekends of her career. But after all the disappointment she gamely came out to meet a group of young fans that wanted her autograph and picture. One teenage boy even said, "I need a hug." And Patrick turned around and gave the kid a big hug.
Actually, Patrick probably needed the hug as much as the fan did. And it's likely she will get plenty from some of her fellow IndyCar drivers if she does leave the series, because for as much as they don't like being overshadowed by her at times, many admire her racing skill.
"It's hard to comment on that [her possibly leaving] because you are going to be a jerk if you say it is good and just [B.S.-ing] if you say it is bad for the series," Scott Dixon said. "The series is strong. ... I think the series is always bigger than one driver. We have fantastic racing now. There are two or three other girls in the series now that are driving very well. For sure she has a very large fan base and people that come to our races just to see her. In some ways it's going to be a loss. For us she is a great friend. I don't think it's a devastating blow but it is somewhat of a setback. Straight up, if the series had the option of her staying or going, they would want her to stay. I definitely wouldn't say it is a good thing.
"It's been cool to race against her. ... She is a tough competitor and I've had some of my worst days trying to pass her because she is a fierce competitor as well."
Not that she hasn't had her run-ins with fellow drivers. What driver hasn't. On Sunday, Graham Rahal said he considering knocking her off course after an incident that contributed to his 24th-place finish.
When asked if he wanted to talk to Patrick, he shot back, "She won't be around next year anyway. We might as well move on. What do you say to her? This is Danica's Racing League right now. She's not going to get a penalty. Look at where the tire mark is on her car. I'm sorry but as long as it goes this way it's not going to work out."
Patrick's current team owner, Michael Andretti, describes contract negotiations to keep Patrick in IndyCar as going "back and forth," but he doesn't know where it is going to go. "She's probably gone, but not definitely," he said. "We're still working on it."
Andretti added that her performance tailed off after she finished fifth in the 2009 season because she started to compete in both IndyCar and NASCAR.
"In 2009 she was on it and then the NASCAR thing came along and it's very difficult to do what she has done by doing both," Andretti said. "In the end, you are not doing either side any justice. She has to pick one side or the other."
Andretti believes Patrick should have won more than one race during her time at Andretti Autosport. He points out that she should have won the 2009 Indianapolis 500 instead of Helio Castroneves but overshot her pit on her final stop and eventually finished third.
"When things are right she's as good as anybody out there," Andretti said. "She proved it many, many times. In 2009 we finished fifth in the championship and that is not easy. You have to be on it to do that. I believe we were getting there and then the NASCAR thing came and that made it harder for her. The best of the best can't do that."
The era of Danica, should it end, will go down as one of the most legendary times in IndyCar racing history because she accomplished something that had never been done before as the first female ever to win a race in a major form of closed-course racing. But one of the great legends in IndyCar history sees brighter days ahead for the circuit.
"Honestly, she is going to be missed," said 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti, "but if the series depended on one individual the series would be in trouble. She brought a lot to the series during the split and they needed something different and exciting. She has been great for the series but the series has outgrown just one single person. I'm sure she expected more than she has done. ... Again, she will be missed and be an asset to NASCAR like she was to IndyCar, but the series will go on and keep growing without her. I don't see any drop-off at all."