They owe her

Patrick - and her success - puts race back in spotlight

On the Indianapolis 500's resurgence

May 26, 2008|By DAVID STEELE

Even though Scott Dixon won the Indianapolis 500 yesterday, every driver in the race, even the two other women, ought to send Danica Patrick a thank-you note.

Thank you, Danica, even with your one career victory, for making us relevant again.

And that is not said to diminish Patrick's one win, although there has been no shortage of attempts to do just that. It's to show exactly how the signature event in a former big-time sport became diminished, and how one driver arrived at the right time and place, and with the right chromosomes, to put it back on the radar.

The sporting event once instantly identified with Memorial Day got eyeballs back on it again. And did this race, and open-wheel racing overall, ever need them.

Take all the tales of gloom about the state of horse racing at Triple Crown time, throw in the disastrous split of the sport into warring factions for 12 years, add the popularity of NASCAR, and you have television ratings that have plunged by more than 60 percent in a decade and a half.

You also have a sport with a lost generation, one that the public views as a relic of another era.

After all those years of being an afterthought outside of Indianapolis, one has to figure that those returning to the 500 yesterday spent much of the telecast trying to take a crash course - no pun intended - on the other 32 drivers. (Good thing there were youngsters named Andretti, Rahal and Foyt to jog cloudy memories.)

As for newcomers, their target was obvious. There's no way it was a coincidence that when ABC began its second hour on the air, it first recapped where Patrick was before showing the leaders. It was hard to ignore, as well, that every other commercial seemed to feature her, and the television broadcast's sponsor also was one of her sponsors.

It's that awareness of reality that prompted teammate Tony Kanaan to tell reporters at the Brickyard last week, "I want her to bring fans [so] I can steal them from her."

Patrick laps the field in popularity. She also laps it in hype - but it's hype in the most positive sense.

Regardless of the haters within the sport, fan base and media - many of whom seem to still be reading from an old All in the Family script - history and barrier-breaking is very alluring. Who in their right minds would want to miss something as universe-altering as a woman winning one of the marquee sporting events on the planet?

Can't lie, that's why I was watching yesterday, all the way to the end, even after Patrick was knocked out less than 30 laps from the finish. I also checked in on it the previous three years, even last year's rain-soaked event. That race was one in which the Indy folks surely won't find much positive. The rain chopped it up and eventually ended it early. Dario Franchitti, the winner, has already traded up from IndyCar to NASCAR. The most memorable image was Franchitti's wife, actress Ashley Judd, celebrating in the downpour, reducing the legendary race to a glorified celebrity wet T-shirt contest.

And the ratings hit what one has to hope is rock bottom: 4.3, down from 10.9 in 1992. No lecture about the shifts in television viewing competition from cable, satellite, DVRs and on-demand programming can sugarcoat that. The only glimmers of hope in that time were - you guessed it - Patrick's first two years in the race, in 2005 and 2006. Which, by the way, proves a critical point: The reunification of the sport helps the appeal, but the pre-truce ratings proved that Patrick moves the needle more.

There was simply no reason to stop what you were doing and watch the Indianapolis 500. Even I paid attention to it when I was a kid, the same way I used to watch the Triple Crown races religiously. And just as we knew who the big-name horses were year-round, we also knew the Unsers, Andrettis and Foyts, at least nearly as much as we did the Dr. Js, Mean Joes and Reggies. They were household names.

Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan and Buddy Rice aren't household names. Helio Castroneves is - in households that tune in to Dancing With the Stars.

Patrick might be most famous for being a woman in a man's sport, but the sport itself is far more famous because she's in it. If Memorial Day again becomes identifiable with the Indy 500, everybody connected to it had better conceive the most profuse show of gratitude of their lives - then double it.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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