IndyCar's success hinges on Patrick

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Danica Patrick went from couch to couch, interview to interview, a whirlwind day of Manhattan media after her historic victory in April. There was The View, Fox News, Conan O'Brien and on and on.

For the racing sensation it was like an hourly case of déjà vu – different shows, all ending with the same question: Now that you're succeeding in Indy cars, when are you going to NASCAR?

Patrick politely answered but quietly fumed at the question. Yes, she had brought up the idea of NASCAR before, and no, she wasn't ruling it or anything out.

However, she was in New York to promote not just herself but open wheel racing, especially as the IndyCar Series was about to enjoy a surge thanks to the ending of a 12-year feud that saw it splinter into two confusing leagues and cede massive market share to NASCAR.

The question itself was loaded. It made IndyCar out to be some minor league feeder system. This despite more technologically advanced cars, arguably more thrilling races and home to no less than the Indianapolis 500, which runs for the 92nd time Sunday.

Not that it was an inaccurate question. After all, the last two Indy 500 champions – Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti – both departed for NASCAR.

So while everyone associated with Indy cars wished it wasn't asked, that's the crushing reality of open wheel racing. After the suicidal split, the public perception of it is as nothing but a second-class circuit, some form of racing that isn't NASCAR and thus can't be considered the big time.

Which begs the question, now that everyone again is making nice: Is it too late ever to come back on the NASCAR juggernaut?

Or did open wheel racing blow it forever?

In his second-floor office at Andretti Green Racing's modern 76,000-square foot shop on the outskirts of northwest Indianapolis, Kim Green sits at a conference table and tries to answer that question. It isn't easy.

The 1996 split of open wheel racing into IRL and CART left all but die-hard fans baffled at who ran where, which circuit did what and exactly where it all was going. In the meantime, a surging NASCAR was putting out a consistent product with familiar drivers week after week.

And that was pretty much that. There's no use debating who is on top anymore.

"At the time open wheel racing was actually in quite a strong position," Green, the long-time team owner, said. "I'm not really certain that everybody on either side really looked at what was the best for open wheel racing.

"Hindsight is obviously 20/20, but maybe at that time we were arrogant that we could stand on our own two feet and build successful racing series, maybe put each other out of business and then have control."

Instead NASCAR dominated, relentlessly expanding its base from its Southern roots to a national phenomenon with tracks from coast to coast. The money in stock cars got so big that the unthinkable began happening: The best open wheel racers started defecting en masse to a car style they sniveled at for years.

"Sometimes from a technical side it surprises me that using mostly 1950s technology you can attract fans," Green said. "Maybe the technological side isn't that important? Maybe that (is how), in some cases, open wheel racing got itself lost."

The two cars don't compare, but NASCAR was masterful in promoting its drivers, their personalities, feuds and foibles to America. With big, colorful cars it was easy to decipher who was who.

The IRL had its dramatic moments – such Hornish's final straightaway pass of Marco Andretti in the 2006 Indy 500 – but how many casual fans even knew who Sam Hornish Jr. was despite years as a top IRL racer?

Regardless, he has gone to NASCAR now. Rather than helping Indy cars by being able to build on that memory this weekend, he's struggling in NASCAR, with just one top-20 finish on the season.

"It appears when a driver goes into NASCAR, they stay there," Green said. "I think you're seeing some Indy Car drivers go to NASCAR after they feel they've achieved what they feel they wanted to achieve in open wheel racing."

That's the definition of minor league. Until they stop the bleeding of their best drivers – just last week two-time Indy 500 champion and "Dancing with the Stars" alum Helio Castroneves said he's considering NASCAR – nothing changes.

"The challenge is whether we can hang onto our stars in this series," Green said.

IndyCar has four reasons for hope; three of them its own making, one NASCAR's.

1. The cars almost undoubtedly produce superior racing with more thrilling passing and unpredictable chases.

2. The Indianapolis 500 offers a brilliant brand to build on.

3. Patrick attracts fan, media and sponsor attention like no other driver.

4. Have you seen a NASCAR race lately?

There is no question the owners around the Brickyard have. With each week of boring, predictable racing thanks to the Car of Tomorrow – last week's All-Star snoozefest the most recent example – they lick their lips at the possibility of an opening.

"I think our racing can be a little bit more exciting," Green said, the understatement rooted in diplomacy.

"There is no question that NASCAR has done a great job over the years promoting its drivers and its racing," said Roger Penske, who owns teams in both circuits. "I think that if you look long term, you will see the IndyCar Series make a great resurgence."

But will anybody be watching to notice? And when a driver excels, will he or she stay? Is it too late?

Penske, Green and the other owners are hyping the combination of road and street courses, ovals and superspeedways. They talk about how they can get into major metropolitan markets, not just in tracks out in the boonies.

They've got all sorts of plans.

"I'm seeing some momentum," Penske said.

Which brings it all back to Patrick. The story line of May here in Indianapolis is: What would happen if she won?

It would be one of the biggest sporting moments in years. No matter how celebrated she is now – "you don't have to say Danica's last name for people to know who you are talking about," said Green, who employs her – she could launch everything into the stratosphere.

But, then again, those questions back in New York might actually become serious. While NASCAR would be an incredible, perhaps impossible, challenge for her, the reality is if someone there wanted to bid on her, there isn't much anyone here could do to counter.

"If she continues to do well on the race track, other series, including NASCAR, will look at her as a potential driver who can be very competitive in their series," Green conceded.

Until IndyCar figures out how to change that dynamic; until it can remind America of what it has to offer, then merger or not, nothing really is going to change.

Sunday is a hopeful day here, the first day of the rest of the life for IndyCar. If it isn't too late, though, it's close.

What to Read Next