Danica: Say no to NASCAR, for now
Whether driving open-wheel racecars in the IndyCar Series, parading in swimsuits for Sports Illustrated or appearing in provocative ads for GoDaddy.com, Danica Patrick has established herself as one of the most marketable women in sports today. A rare combination of talent, beauty and celebrity star power, Patrick has singlehandedly raised the profile of the IndyCar Series at a time when open-wheel racing has fallen far behind NASCAR in popularity around the country.
So it’s only natural to expect Patrick to do what other successful IndyCar drivers have done: Move to NASCAR, where the audience is larger and the marketing opportunities are far more profitable. She already has said she’s considering it.
But here’s a bit of advice for Patrick: Don’t do it. Not now. Not before you are ready for a move that won’t necessarily make your career, but could break it.
And don’t do it until you fully understand what could be at stake. It’s not just your own future.
The day Patrick shows up to compete in her first NASCAR Sprint Cup race, she will be judged not just as a driver, but as a female driver. And everything she does will be viewed through that lens. That’s why she needs to be prepared.
As many male drivers surely have told Patrick already, it isn’t easy to make the switch. Sam Hornish Jr. is a three-time IndyCar Series champion, and a winner of the Indy 500, and he has struggled in his two seasons in NASCAR. Hornish was 35th in the points race last year and 30th through 12 races this year.
Juan Pablo Montoya was a winning driver not only in the IRL, but in Formula One, the premier racing series in the world. He has won both the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. But he has yet to make an impact in NASCAR. In his third season in the No. 42, he has just one career win.
At least they’re still in NASCAR, which is more than Dario Franchitti can say. He won the Indy 500 and IndyCar Series title in 2007 and used that success to catapult to NASCAR in 2008. But Franchitti didn’t make it through the season before poor finishes, an injury and lack of sponsorship forced him out. He’s now back in the IRL.
That’s one win in 143 races by three of the top open-wheel drivers. The struggles of Hornish, Montoya and Franchitti make clear the difficulty in transitioning from racing 1,500-pound open-wheel racecars to 3,400-pound stock cars. And they are all more accomplished and more experienced than Patrick, who has one career victory in four-plus seasons in the IndyCar Series and a third-place finish in this past Sunday’s Indy 500.
There’s no reason to believe that transition will be any easier for Patrick, who has the weight of even greater expectations on her shoulders. After all, no woman has ever succeeded in NASCAR, despite a highly publicized but ultimately failed attempt at adding diversity to the sport in recent years. Most female competitors have been little more than novelties over the years.
The most recent hope was Erin Crocker, who raced in the third-tier Truck Series full-time in 2006. Crocker not only struggled in the racecar, she was linked romantically to her boss, former Evernham Motorsports team owner Ray Evernham. Crocker lost her sponsorship a year later and was never able to compete regularly in NASCAR again.
If Patrick fails as well, the headlines won’t merely bemoan yet another open-wheel driver who couldn’t excel in NASCAR. She will offer critics more proof that women can’t hack it in NASCAR. It will be years before another woman is taken seriously in the sport. And Patrick will return to the IndyCar Series a far less intriguing racecar driver.
So Danica: Stay in the IndyCar Series. As you look around at opportunities with your contract at Andretti Green about to expire, try to pursue a spot on a team with NASCAR connections such as Penske Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing. Both teams will allow you to dabble in NASCAR while maintaining a full-time ride in the IndyCar Series.
And be smart. Take three-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s advice and test NASCAR’s lower levels where you can learn how to drive stock cars before making the jump to the Sprint Cup.
When you’re ready, make the move. But only when you can make as big an impact on the track as off it.
A lot is riding on your success.