Danica can't save NASCAR
CONCORD, N.C. -- It could have been deemed a flood of support, but the plumbing ruined the metaphor. Nonetheless, the local reaction was emphatic when Janet Guthrie became the first women to start a top-series NASCAR race in the 1976 World 600.
Charlotte Motor Speedway vendors sold more tickets when Guthrie qualified for the race than it ever had in a single day. The crush of fans was so great that the facility ran out of water, prompting then-general manager H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler to hire local fire departments to bring in more just so toilets would flush. It was a grab for attention that worked perfectly, orchestrated by track president Bruton Smith to sell tickets for an event that was slumping in the shadow of the Indianapolis 500, in part because of Guthrie's attempts to qualify there.
"Humpy blamed it on all the women, though perhaps it was just because they had a record crowd," Guthrie, whose NASCAR career totaled 33 races over parts of four seasons, said of the water shortage. "I think they got 10, 12, 14 percent more fans than they ever had before. Half an hour after the start of the race, there were still cars lined up a mile or two outside trying to get in the race track.
"I did put a lot of money in promoters' pockets that year."
Nearly four decades later, the track was not nearly as crowded with the curious when Danica Patrick made her first start in what is now called the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's Memorial Day weekend showcase. Traffic was smooth, compared to during the sport's boom cycle of a few years ago. There were no taxis full of women, as Wheeler recalled seeing in 1976. The backstretch seating area was closed and swathed in massive signage. There were no fans crammed into seats behind poles.
The presence of Danica Patrick, one of the most popular, polarizing, mass-marketed, scrutinized and ubiquitous figures in sports, apparently had no tangible impact. That was to be expected, say industry insiders. The novelty has apparently subsided, both for female drivers in general and for Patrick, three seasons and 39 races into her NASCAR career, even though 2012 marks her first full Nationwide series bid. Underneath the flat trend is a lesson for motorsports that no single personality -- regardless of Q rating, brand appeal or Twitter followers -- can translate fan interest into consumption. Both NASCAR and IndyCar appear to support that point early in the season.
"I don't think she'll create any change, to be honest with you," Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said of Patrick's impact on NASCAR.
And to expect otherwise, said Pete DeLorenzo, editor of Autoextremist.com and a long-time auto industry analyst, is unrealistic.
"I don't think it's fair," he said. "I think she will bring some new people into the sport, but I just don't think she can carry it, especially when she's driving around in 30th position all the time. Yes, she's attractive and a great marketing tool, but I don't think she can carry NASCAR on her own and I don't think she and [action sports NASCAR convert] Travis Pastrana can do it, either."
This is no new development. The point was demonstrated vividly in IndyCar when Patrick's popularity soared in 2005, Gossage said, and with every Nationwide race contested by the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"We had the first race after her breakout year at Indianapolis in 2005, when Danica Mania was just exploding -- boom! -- and we couldn't sell any more tickets because of that," he said. "But we sure had a much hotter spotlight on us and the race and the series. It's a great thing, but I've never seen one driver move the needle at all. You've got to have more than just Danica.
"And every Nationwide race [Earnhardt Jr.] runs should be slammed, but it's not that simple. He helps, but there's more to it."
NASCAR's trend of stale attendance continued last weekend, with CMS announcing 5,000 fewer attendees than last season for the Coca-Cola 600. There were swathes of empty seats earlier this spring at Bristol Motor Speedway, previously one of the sport's most popular venues.
The shortfalls have been attributed to numerous factors, from the prolonged economic distress of NASCAR's consumers to the disenchantment with the style of racing at places such as Bristol since refurbishments. Either way, Patrick has not been enough to change the downward momentum despite vigorous leveraging efforts by NASCAR and promoters.
"It's a lot to put on her," DeLorenzo said. "I have a lot of respect for Danica. She understands who she is. She understands her brand, but beyond that, Nationwide race days would be packed or have noticeable increases, and that's not happening."
Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood, who saw the power and limitations of branding with Patrick when he served as president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said there is no mechanism to figure how driver popularity equates "into an actual dollar or ticket number." So promoters hope for intangible benefits.
"You look at it this way: She generates publicity from media that don't typically cover this sport," he said. "So the more media attention you get, the awareness you create, hopefully the more tickets you might sell or TV viewership or social impact. We like that. Any time you get more coverage, it creates more awareness around you event.
"So whether she's on the front page of the USA Today or on the 'NBC Nightly News,' that works for us. I can't tell you that the two-minute interview she did on the 'NBC Nightly News' equated to this, but I know it helped to make the event bigger, and that to us is all that matters."
Oddly, IndyCar has enjoyed an attendance uptick this season, its first season since 2004 without Patrick. IndyCar chairman Randy Bernard has touted "double-digit" increases in attendance in percentage terms through the first four races of the season, although Patrick's legions of green-swathed fans, many of them little girls and their families, have moved on. Series officials at the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., said they received just one query about Patrick's absence, via Facebook. The Indianapolis 500's 4.3 Nielsen rating was its best since 2008, and slightly below the Coca-Cola 600's figure (4.4).
"I think it comes down to the quality of the racing," DeLorenzo said. "Granted, [attendance isn't] great, but it's good to have a slight improvement year to year, and I'm sure IndyCar is happy about that."
Though he has wielded Patrick as a marketing tool in the past, Gossage said he does not expect her absence to negatively affect the June 9 IndyCar race at Texas.
"I don't think it's that significant of a factor, though it doesn't help," he said. "You're not going to see gaping holes in the grandstands because Danica's not there. You're not going to lose 10 percent of your sales because Danica is not there, nor have we seen Nationwide grow x percent because she is there now. You've got to have Danica and Helio [Castroneves] and Dario [Franchitti] and [Tony] Kanaan and so forth. [Losing any] one of them doesn't really hurt you. [Losing any] two of them doesn't really hurt you. It's the whole."