AP is reporting that a deal is on the table for Danica Patrick to make the full-time switch to Nascar in 2012. The plan, according to insiders, is for her to run full time in Nationwide with the Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports while Tony Stewart will also be fielding an extra car in the premier Sprint Cup series for the world’s fourth highest paid female athlete. Considering the lengths to which Danica went to in her early career to escape oval racing this is clearly a money move – something that does her no favours in the eyes of the non-believers.
This long-predicted move to tin-tops is a blow to Indycar, but that series has far more pressing concerns as it still struggles to return to its brilliant best. They can console themselves with the fact that winning the Indy 500 remains a priority for Danica – she looks set to disrupt her Nationwide season by missing three races to try to finally fulfill the promise she showed when she came back from a crash to lead her debut race at the Brickyard back in 2005, only losing out in the dying laps.
I for one have been positive about Danica Patrick, if only for the fact that it was refreshing to see a female driver receive some proper support. Ford, BMW, Rahal and Andretti are amongst the big names who have backed her and now she has become involved with Dale Earnhardt Jnr and Tony Stewart – about the two most popular racers in Stock Cars. I remember watching her in Formula Vauxhall Junior and Formula Ford back in the late 1990s as she failed to shine in either. The one rather huge exception to that was her second place to teammate Anthony Davidson in the 2000 Formula Ford Festival – the best finish in this prestigious event for both a woman and indeed an American. Despite this I didn’t think she was much cop at the time if I’m brutally honest, but I’m happy to say I was wrong.
Between these early days and her jump up into Indycar in 2005 she was guided by Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, although a second season of Formula Ford was curtailed by not wanting to waste her sponsorship on the year-old car that was available to her. Instead Rahal lined her up to drive in British Formula 3 just as his paymasters at Jaguar removed him from their racing programme and the deal collapsed. This left Danica to race in unfamiliar tracks in an assortment of machinery back in the USA having failed to crack the European elite. During her junior career she never drove in a series for more than one season and didn’t truly settle until she took Indycar by storm in Bobby Rahal’s squad that he co-owns with David Letterman.
What was so remarkable about Patrick’s Indycar baptism was that it was her first time on ovals. Danica took to the 230 MPH challenge like a fish to water as she claimed pole positions and led races. Her performance as a rookie at Indy was startling; gamely battling for the win after a bruising spin, something that endeared her to many. Eventually she claimed her first victory at Motegi in 2008, a savvy fuel-saving final run that was typical of Danica who often out-smarts the boys even though she doesn’t appear to have the ultimate edge over them in traffic. This was her only win since a successful karting career, with the exception of a victory in a race for celebrities – a tag that applies to her more than any other driver today. At one point she was signing more autographs than all the other Indycar drivers put together – something that her rivals once threatened to strike over!
It has always seemed baffling that Danica struggled on the road courses after her upbringing on the twisting racetracks of the UK, although her petite frame wasn’t helped by the lack of power-steering on an Indycar. I actually believe that an F1 car would be more forgiving in this respect, but once Patrick makes the leap to Nascar it will be game over for her ever performing on the world stage.
This move will unquestionably be a boost for Nascar, but over in the States it could barely be any more popular as it is. Danica has performed as well as any other rookie usually does in Nationwide during her sporadic appearances this year and with the emphasis nearly 100% on ovals Nascar should be a happy hunting ground for her. Of course a few more fans may watch her progress, though the world’s most attended spectator sport is not short of all-American heroes as it is. Neither Danica nor Nascar need this deal, though both will want it. Patrick needs a fresh challenge and Nascar will gladly provide it.
This neatly opens up room for the exciting Simona de Silvestro to become the top lady racer in Indycar, expect her to get a decent seat in the new-look formula in 2012. It seems likely that Simona could deliver more wins than Danica in the future, although the US likes its homegrown heroes so don’t expect the young Swiss racer to appear in every second advertisement on ABC any time soon.
Good luck to Danica on her mission to infiltrate the Good Ol’ Boys of Nascar, she has already set new standards for female racers and there is no more testosterone-laden arena than Stock Cars. If the little lady from Indiana can continue to fight with the big boys after the switch it could be the much needed cultural catalyst that sees more girls take up racing in the future. There are many wonderful aspects of this sport of ours, women competing with men on an equal basis is something to celebrate so I will continue to cheer for Danica and Simona no matter where their careers take them.