She's gone, she's gone
I better learn how to face it
Hall & Oates, "She's Gone"
The news was so electrifying for ESPN that they overlaid a bright GoDaddy.com green news banner trumpeting the news in prominent view during an interview of 2011 Indy 500 front row drivers Alex Tagliani, Scott Dixon, and Oriol Servia.
Worse, the ESPN interviewer's first question to the men who will start from the front at the Brickyard this Sunday was, "Give me your reaction to The News." No, there's no [sic] there. It was clear that in ESPN's minds this was an event to be capitalized - and capitalized upon - at all costs (if for no other reason than the fact that ESPN will have exclusive broadcast rights to Danica's first full season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series).
To Scott Dixon's credit, he issued a direct, albeit polite, rebuke: "I came here to talk about IndyCar racing."
The implication was that the Danica Patrick Circus and IndyCar racing are now two separate topics... and that a surprisingly large number of people think it's about damn time, too.
From the moment her oiled and scantily-clad shanks were draped across a series of hot rods for FHM Magazine, Danica Patrick's career ceased to be just about driving race cars. The raven-haired racer became a mainstream media sensation and the topic of millions of Google searches - only some of which had anything at all to do with IndyCar racing.
Her celebrity has certainly provided an artificial bump in INDYCAR's popularity. "Artificial," because a great many who follow and are fans of Danica Patrick are interested only in Danica Patrick - and when Danica moves on, they will move on with her as if she had never raced an IndyCar before.
And yet INDYCAR and their marketing partners have spent years attempting to appease Danica's racing fans and trying to fish in those who are more interested in her skin than her skill. Relentlessly, remorselessly, INDYCAR has set Patrick on a pedestal and arranged the sport around it. Indeed, the sport's very identity seemed to be inextricably linked to Danica - a development certainly aided by an overenthusiastic assist from broadcast partner ESPN.
This is disappointing on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that Danica Patrick began her career as a legitimately promising racer who was climbing the ladder based on her skill. Racer Danica still shows up on occasion - you can easily recognize her by her thin-lipped, laser-gazed aura of focused determination when the track is hot and the cameras are distant. If you're around Racer Danica when she's in the zone, the drive and ambition is palpable enough to feel in the air around her.
Racer Danica craves public recognition of her driving skills. She knows - and has proven on the track - that she can succeed on more than the altitude of her zippers or the scarcity of her clothing. But far too often, Racer Danica takes a back seat to Brand Danica - a creation of IMG, the biggest sports promotion agency this side of Mars - who is trotted out onto red carpets, posed in front of paparazzi and Sports Illustrated cameras, and next to faux-lesbianic starlets who progressively strip off their clothes in a titillating series of GoDaddy.com commercials.
Brand Danica is a hot property in our celebrity-obsessed society - in fact, it's likely that more people will be surfing for her photos online than actually watching her race in this weekend's Indianapolis 500. Brand Danica has made Danica Patrick a very, very wealthy and famous woman. But the downside is that Brand Danica has marginalized Racer Danica. Through the filter of Brand Danica, the natural competitive fire common to all race car drivers turns into "diva attitude." Standard promotional opportunities that are manna for racers and their teams become "hype machines." And every mistake she makes on the track - to which she is unquestionably entitled since she's a human being - prompts behind-the-back snickers and whispers of "Anna Kournikova."
There is no question in my mind that this absolutely galls Racer Danica. Racer Danica still feels that, given the right equipment and circumstances, she can beat anyone on the racetrack. Racer Danica wants the public to know that, to respect her for that. Those GoDaddy commercials showing her provocatively unzipping a leather jacket in front of onanistic mouth breathers in front of a computer do utterly no justice to the long and wearying road that Racer Danica traveled to make it to racing's big leagues.
But as she prepares to leave the IndyCar stage, it is Brand Danica to whom most fans will be waving goodbye most enthusiastically. The TMZ attitude that turned the sport into a sideshow is headed to the glitzy, uber-commercial neighborhood of NASCAR racing, where the GoDaddy Girl will fit in quite well with "Boys, Have At It" and "Boogity Boogity Boogity."
As for Racer Danica? Of course we will miss her. Away from the limelight, when racing is at its simplest - get in, strap down, hold on, and go fast - Danica Patrick reveals herself to be a bright, intelligent, witty, and driven person, an asset to the paddock. There is a reason beyond the cheesecake photos why IndyCar fans anticipated her advent to the series so breathlessly all those years ago. It is only the IMG-styled baggage that has become a burden.
But even Racer Danica is no longer a rarity in an ever-more-progressive IndyCar paddock. Three other female drivers who are locked into the Indy 500 starting field this weekend are making their reputations by being "bad-ass" instead of teasing a bare one for the cameras. Moreover, it seems as though the fan consensus is a resounding, "That's how it should be."
It is unfair, I suppose, to summarize and generalize a person in this fashion. But as we were so glaringly reminded earlier this week, racing is an uncaring, impersonal business - made only more so when that business becomes a source of lucre and self-promotion. We all make choices, and we must live with their consequences. Sadly, one of the consequences of Danica Patrick's rise to pop culture fame is that, when she moves to the greener pastures of NASCAR, there will be many people who will feel relieved.
It's not sour grapes. It's like Scott Dixon said: "I came here to talk about IndyCar racing."