Texas Motor Speedway takes “Danica vs. Dan” feud to a new level

By Bruce Martin
PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

FORT WORTH, Texas (Ticker) - When Danica Patrick confronted and grabbed Dan Wheldon after last Sunday’s IndyCar race at the Milwaukee Mile over her displeasure at getting cut off earlier in the race, it provided Texas Motor Speedway promoter Eddie Gossage with the chance to create a promotional masterpiece.

“Promotion is an art form but this one is like painting by numbers,” Gossage said, explaining his public relations blitz proclaiming this as “The Rumble at the Speedway.”

“I hope they are OK with it but we have to do this. This is a softball right over the middle. What are we supposed to do, not swing at it? As a member of the international brotherhood of race promoters Local 817, I took an oath, I have to do this.”

A huge banner is draped over the broadcast center at the end of the garage area at Texas Motor Speedway with the words “Danica vs. Wheldon” next to facial shots of both drivers along with quotes from last Sunday’s confrontation.

“If he thinks I’m not going to remember that, HE’S CRAZY!” is the quote next to Patrick’s face. Above Wheldon’s mug is the quote, “She’s just feeling the pressure of not winning races.”

Gossage also sent out a “Tale of the Tape” to both local and national media, billing this as Dan “The Battlin’ Brit” Wheldon vs. Danica “The Phoenix Firebird” Patrick. Below is the tale of the tape with the most telling statistic of all 13 wins for Wheldon to zero for Patrick.

But when it comes to fierce driving and determination, few can doubt that Patrick has the heart of an assassin, especially the way she track down Wheldon and voiced her displeasure after the Milwaukee race.

Wheldon did not even look at Patrick in the eye as he tried to leave the diminutive diva as she vented her anger at him.

From a promoter’s perspective, he couldn’t have dreamed of a better scenario entering Saturday night’s IndyCar Bombardier LearJet 550k at Texas Motor Speedway.

“The beauty of this thing is it is something that happened in the field of competition,” Gossage said. “It happened on the race track so it’s a perfect promotion. It happened on its own. The incident happened in front of all of us. They said what they said and it happened between the most newsworthy person in the series and one of the most quotable people who won’t back down from it.

“It’s really ‘The Perfect Storm’ in terms of promotion.”

At Wednesday night’s autograph session, Wheldon and Patrick were seated at the same table separated by Wheldon’s former teammate and friend Tony Kanaan, who is teammates with Patrick at Andretti Green Racing.

Kanaan wore a referee shirt while the two drivers signed autographs for the fans without much interaction between each other.

It’s good old-fashioned promotion done by a man who learned from the famed Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler when he worked for both at what is now known as Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

When Gossage saw the replays of Wheldon cutting off Patrick as she tried to make a pass early in last Sunday’s race only for her to spin out but regain control of the car, followed by the confrontation on pit lane afterwards, he could barely contain himself.

“I was giddy; I couldn’t sleep,” Gossage said. “I couldn’t wait until I came to the speedway to work the next day. This has been the most fun week in my career because it has all the ingredients.

“This one is the perfect recipe.”

After a Monday morning staff meeting, the ideas were in place with banners being made and the audio interviews are on the phone lines for callers to Texas Motor Speedway.

It has created an electric atmosphere for the IndyCar race at a place that draws the biggest crowds for its races anywhere other than the Indianapolis 500.

This episode should supercharge the crowd, especially the way the two drivers continue to talk about it.

“If she wants to come and apologize, I would be very happy to listen,” Wheldon said Wednesday afternoon.

Patrick’s response was, “The words he used were right. I would like one.”

Wheldon continued to voice his displeasure at Patrick’s tirade as the drivers prepared for Saturday night’s race.

“When somebody acts like that, she was acting like a spoiled brat,” Wheldon said. “I don’t respect that.”

Patrick did not take kindly to Wheldon’s remark.

“If somebody evokes emotion and lets that out, is everyone a spoiled brat?” Patrick asked. “I don’t think it’s unprofessional to confront somebody when there is a problem. I thought that where it went wrong was the fact that I wanted to talk to him and he kept walking away from me.

“And wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t listen to me nothing. I thought he was definitely condescending, which is unprofessional in and of itself.”

Meantime, Gossage sits back and smiles in the same manner of boxing promoter Don King, who is pictured with Gossage on the “Rumble at the Speedway” banners that flood this market.

“Eddie Gossage can make a storyline out of anything,” Wheldon said. “But we handed him this one. That’s one that we handed him.”

Wheldon had the third fastest speed in Thursday night’s practice session at 212.692 miles per hour while Patrick was 10th at 211.312 mph. Scott Dixon was the fastest at 214.154 mph.

“As long as my car is fast, I don’t care whether I’m viewed as the bad guy or not,” Wheldon said. “But it’s not my job to sell tickets.”

“If you get into anything with Danica, it’s going to be blown up ten-fold. Two years ago people thought I was pissed that she got all the headlines when I won the Indianapolis 500 but I have the self-satisfaction of winning that race.”

Gossage doesn’t want to pick the bad guy but he believes the IndyCar series needs one. After all, that approach works for NASCAR, which has drivers who wear both the black hat and the white hat good and bad all wrapped up into one.

Controversy creates interest and interest sells tickets and that’s what Gossage wants on Saturday night.

“As long as the fans make noise,” Gossage said. “You’re going to hear the boxing ring bell a few times and the theme from ‘Rocky’ before the race. On the video screens, we’re going to take everything they said and have done after that race and put it out there. We don’t want the fans to be against one another but we sure want them to stand and take notice.

“Like Dale Earnhardt used to say, ‘the day you need to be afraid is the day they don’t make any noise at all.’”

Updated Thursday, Jun 7, 2007