Danica Patrick may or may not have known what would happen when she tweeted, "I need to thanks [sic] NASCAR for the SAFER barrier too" following her last-lap wreck in the Gatorade Duel at Daytona on Thursday afternoon.
It's pretty obvious what she meant - she was happy that NASCAR required the SAFER barrier to be installed at the Daytona International Speedway on the inside walls.
Perhaps inevitably, though, IndyCar fans immediately took offense and did what they always do when the SAFER barrier is discussed on a NASCAR race broadcast: heatedly and loudly remind everyone who will listen that it was IndyCar who helped develop and first implemented the SAFER system.
This is dumb on so many levels, but it's explainable by understanding a couple of very important things. First, these easily-offended people are hypersensitive to any indication that Patrick, once the darling of the IndyCar scene, might be dismissive about the racing category that put her in the international spotlight to begin with. And second, IndyCar fans crave validation that simply is not going to be given to them by anyone outside of their own insular community.
It's the second point I'm most concerned with, because in all honesty anything Danica Patrick says or does in connection with IndyCar racing is irrelevant. She is a NASCAR driver now, she is where she wants to be, and that's the end of it. No amount of fan schadenfreude will change the fact that she picked one series over another.
It's the validation that is the worrisome point here. IndyCar fans cling so desperately to the fact that their series helped pioneer safety measures like SAFER and HANS that you'd think they were trying to keep from drowning. They sound like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, meeting every criticism or failure in his life with the fact that he was a fairly good high school athlete, and if people had only acknowledged that fact his life would be so different.
We as fans struggle with the idea that almost nobody even knows about IndyCar racing in the nation where it was born. We struggle because at one point our society incorporated the Indianapolis 500 as an integral part of its cultural zeitgeist, but now it barely outdraws a regular-season NASCAR race in the TV ratings. We struggle because NASCAR is now considered to be "auto racing" in America, and everything else could just as well be jai alai or competitive oil painting.
It strikes directly at our sense of self-importance, this dismissal we feel of the sport we love so dearly. It'd be one thing if people were angry at us or critical of us, because that would at least be attention and an acknowledgement of our existence. But this... this is full-on irrelevance. Being ignored is so much worse than being hated.
But no matter how dedicatedly we ostrich ourselves into the sand, there's no escaping reality - we do not matter to the world as much as we want to believe we do. And no amount of huffy, indignant expressions of outrage will change that fact one iota.
Lashing out at what is really a harmless, well-meaning thought from Danica Patrick should be beneath us. So why did so many still do it? Frustration, perhaps? A way of venting angst at not mattering as much as we feel we should?
It would behoove us as IndyCar fans to understand a simple truth, and that is that actively courting attention or hoping to change others' perspective of our sport is a fool's errand. Relevance cannot be forced, nor can it be persuaded. It can only be earned by excellence of product, and that is something that IndyCar has lacked for several years, mainly as a result of our own egos, tunnel-vision, and lack of common sense.
Being part of the genesis of something like SAFER or HANS is a point of pride, without doubt. However, it should not be used as a blunt instrument with which we beat other fans or broadcasters over the head. We should aspire to a better, more mature outlook than that. Because if we start getting into the business of counting coup against NASCAR, we will quickly find that we are sadly outmatched.
On a personal note, I am glad that Danica is still around for the insulted to huff at. Having lived and worked through the sometimes terrible years in NASCAR before HANS, SAFER, and paved runoff areas, I know very well how her wreck could have turned out. And I suspect that she knows it too, even if she doesn't tweet a retraction or clarification.
Stay classy, folks. Please.