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Since When Is A Mistake Filled Race A Brilliant Drive?

By

5/30/05

First, let me state right up front that I believe Danica Patrick is a very talented driver. I have believed in her abilities since the time she finished second in the British Formula Ford Festival, the only American to finish that high other than Danny Sullivan.

I have defended Danica's talent many times on various racing forums, disputing those who believe she has been outclassed by her competition. As a point of debate, I often bring up how well she did last year against Andrew Ranger in the Toyota Atlantic series. Those two drivers often fought for position, mano-a-mano, throughout the season. Danica beat Ranger as often as she did not.

Considering that Ranger is being hailed as the next great Canadian sensation since Gilles Villeneuve, either Patrick has that sort of talent or Ranger is overrated. And if Ranger is ready for the big time, so is Patrick. Or, they both are not. You can't have it both ways. Since I do believe Ranger is a star of the future, so it concludes that Patrick is also a talent to be reckoned with.

As a clincher, after being knocked off the track from her pole position at last year's Portland Atlantic event, she drove a brilliant race from the back of the field, slicing and dicing her way to a seventh place finish. Arguably, the best drive of her career so far.

With all that said, it was sickening to watch the fawning over Danica throughout the Indianapolis 500 broadcast (not to mention all the lead up to the race throughout the month) to the point where nobody was willing to call it the way it was. That is, Danica drove a mistake filled race and deserves very little of the accolades she is receiving after such a dismal performance.

Not since Barney Oldfield has there been such hyperbole.

Danica's first big mistake was stalling in the pits. Sure, veterans have done that as well, but when they do, it is called a mistake. For some reason, when Danica did it, excuses came out from the commentators that perhaps it was a clutch problem, even though no such evidence existed.

This mistake put Danica at the rear end of the field. She slowly, and it was slowly, worked her way back up the field. With a Honda engine and through attrition, this was no surprise. Everybody expected her to do so. Yet, Brent Musburger shouted during a break about Danica doing an amazing job coming from the back and what a story we had. Hmmm, I remember a certain Jacques Villeneuve coming from two laps down to win the 1995 race. Now, that was a story!

The worse comment came after Kosuke Matsuura came down and banged into Danica. A few laps later, one of the broadcasters said, "Danica put that close call behind her like no other driver can." Excuse me? What possesses a so-called expert on the sport to say such an ignorant comment? Every race car driver in the world at every level puts a close call behind them immediately. It's a matter of practicality -- the next turn comes up so quickly, you have no time to be concerned about a close call. The only thing you worry about is whether the close call may have caused a mechanical problem.

Later, Danica committed the biggest gaffe of the race by any driver -- she spun during a yellow flag, taking three drivers (Tomas Scheckter and Tomas Enge by contact and Patrick Carpentier with debris) out of the race. By sheer luck, she was able to pit immediately and only minor damage was done on her car that was easily fixable. This racing luck doesn't excuse the fact that she pulled a bonehead move. When Kevin Cogan does it, his career is ruined. When Danica does it, they marvel at how smart she is for telling her crew to keep her on the lead lap.

Finally, at the end of the race as her car was fading, she is told over the radio not to let the next guy behind her to pass. That next driver was Sebastien Bourdais. With her momentum completely lost, Bourdais goes underneath her. However, given instruction to be over aggressive, she chops down on Bourdais, causing Bourdais to check up excessively, which forced the driver behind him to get too close and cut Bourdais' tire, resulting in Bourdais sliding into the wall. Danica's count of drivers taken out of the race went up to four.

The most telling evidence of Danica's performance was in the on-board video camera. Here, you could see her style versus those of more polished drivers, especially Dario Franchitti. Franchitti had a much smoother approach, slowly turning in, arcing to the apex and thus scrubbing less speed, and then slowly releasing the steering wheel coming out of the turn. All in one slow, smooth motion with no wasted movements. Danica dive bombed the entry into the turn, throwing the car in, and then correcting and fighting the steering wheel through the turn especially at the apex. It was an obvious display of a less talented driver versus those who have been at this game for quite a while.

If any other driver stalled during a pit stop, spun during a yellow flag, and took out four cars from their mistakes, they would have been called on it by any sane commentator. Instead, Danica is hailed as the next coming of Vukovich, Shaw, Clark, Foyt, and Andretti, all rolled into one. She isn't even the next coming of Bryan Herta, yet, a driver who is all too familiar with not living up to hype. A driver who rightfully stated how Danica did not deserve all this publicity because she hasn't paid her dues.

The thing is, all this hype can hurt Danica. There is a show on Fox Sports called "The Sports List." One of the lists are the greatest busts in sports. Though, most on the list are athletes who never did anything, some are athletes who had a decent career. However, they were so hyped up that they were still considered a bust. This can happen to Danica.

Danica uses her sex appeal to her advantage. Nothing wrong with that. However, despite my defense of her Atlantics career, the fact is, she never won a race in a key open wheel series. I would bet that more than half of the people who know who Anna Kournikova is cannot name the sport she played, if they even know she was an athlete in the first place. The same fate may befall Danica.

There are other up and coming women drivers who may actually be better than Danica. There is of course current Atlantic driver Katherine Legge, who did something in Atlantic Danica wasn't able to -- win. Her first time out. Though Katherine doesn't have the sexiness that Danica does, she is still attractive and has a lovely British accent that Americans like.

There is also Erin Crocker who is probably the best woman ever to come out of the sprint car ranks. She has been signed by a major NASCAR team, Evernham Motorsports, who plans to groom her for the Nextel Cup. If she is successful in that series, she will eclipse any open wheel driver in popularity. Then, Danica will be nothing more than an overhyped curiosity even if she does have a successful career.

Interestingly, Danica herself downplayed her performance after the race. Despite Jack Arute's usual biased reporting, Danica admitted she drove "like a rookie," and made some mistakes that cost her the race. She also wanted to deflect praise to where it belonged, to those who finished ahead of her, especially to the winner, Dan Wheldon. Danica learned a lot from this race, not the least of which was humbleness.

When things were going well, Danica Patrick did drive very well. Danica may very well win some races. She may very well eventually win the Indy 500. But her performance in this year's race coupled with the undeserved hype by the media will do her no favors with her fellow drivers who will grow to distaste the publicity she is getting and may make it very difficult for her on the track as well as do nothing but set her up for a mighty fall.

Copyright © 2005 by Russell Jaslow and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

 
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