2011 Indianapolis 500: Could Danica Patrick Lose Millions If Another Woman Wins?

David BurnettCorrespondent IMay 28, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 22:  Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, talks with the media after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on May 22, 2011 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

What happens to all of the future riches and fame seemingly reserved for Danica Patrick if one of the other lady drivers wins the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday? Three of the most accomplished women to ever race at Indianapolis will join Danica in this year’s starting grid. And with the closeness of this year’s Indy field, there is a greater chance than ever that any of the female drivers could break through with a groundbreaking victory.   

It also begs the question: What is it about Danica that has allowed her to hog the spotlight for the last six years?  Is it mostly because of her historic run at Indy in 2005? Is it her provocative Go Daddy commecials or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit layouts? It can’t simply be because she’s a competent lady driver.

She is certainly not the first female driver at Indy. That distinction belongs to Janet Guthrie, who first qualified for Indianapolis in 1977. Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher also preceded Danica.   But those three women never really had a chance to win Indy, which is a distinction that separates Danica from the rest.   

Yes, it was thrilling to see Danica nearly win the Indy 500 six years ago. No other woman had ever taken the lead at the world’s most famous race track. But Danica has been making money on that moment for a lot longer than many people believe she deserves. 

Still I will not fault her for taking full advantage of the excessive media hype and cashing in with sponsors. What’s a woman to do when men are fawning all over her like fools? But even foolish guys sober up eventually. No one likes a tease. And Danica has been teasing racing fans for years. Which may be why in the last year or so she’s heard occasional boos from the crowd at Indy and other race tracks. 

It could also be because she has often acted childish and whiny when she hasn’t gotten her way. Those character traits are not very endearing—for a lady. But of course guys get away with that kind of behavior all the time. The great A.J. Foyt often responded the same way many times over the years, but A.J. won lots of races and four Indy 500s, which I suppose earned him the right to occasionally act out.  

Winning cures lots of ills, which is something Danica had better start doing more of soon.  Danica who won her only IndyCar race in Japan three years ago needs another victory badly to convince skeptics that she’s more than just a pretty face.  

But lack of wins has not stopped NASCAR from going all out to lure her away from IndyCar. NASCAR feeds on the drama that Danica might bring. Danica has dabbled in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide Series for the last two years learning how to drive those bulky stock cars. 

And indeed it’s looking more and more like Danica will finally leave IndyCar and turn her attention full time to NASCAR next season, which means this year’s centennial Indianapolis 500 could be her last. Many worry about the potential negative impact that losing Danica to NASCAR will have on the struggling IndyCar Series, but I’m not so sure about that.    

I won’t debate the fact that Danica Patrick is a media darling. But I believe her actual popularity among auto racing fans has been wildly overstated. In other words, she’s well-known but not necessarily well-loved.  

Which brings me back to my original point, Danica gained fame because she led 19 of the most important laps of her career, on open wheel racing's biggest stage. And it whetted our desire to see a woman finally achieving what some considered impossible: winning Indy. But so far she hasn’t accomplished the feat.   

Meanwhile, IndyCar’s other ladies are making their own marks.

Britain’s Pippa Mann won a race last year in the Indy Lights series and earned three pole position starts. Brazilian driver Ana Beatriz has won two Indy Lights series races. And Switzerland’s Simona De Silvestro, who won five times in the Atlantic’s series, has endeared herself with fans for her grit and courage after qualifying her backup car last weekend just days after a horrifying crash that left her hands badly burned.    

Should any of these three women win Indianapolis this year, the impact on the earning power of the presumptive IndyCar star Danica Patrick could be catastrophic. While racing fans have been waiting six years for Danica’s next big breakthrough, it just may turnout that another lady may claim racing's biggest prize first. 

And if that happens, then Danica’s asking price for a NASCAR ride could take a serious tumble, along with major damage to her marketing and commercial machine. NASCAR might then decide to pursue one of those other pretty faces.

However you look at it, the clock is indeed ticking down for Danica. Her ultra-long 15 minutes of fame may finally be coming to an end.