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Published: Thursday, 7/28/2005

Patrick packs the stands

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Danica Patrick has brought a lot of attention to racing since her Indy 500 performance. Danica Patrick has brought a lot of attention to racing since her Indy 500 performance.
MARY JO WALICKI / KRT Enlarge

BROOKLYN, Mich. - There is nothing phony or manufactured about the sequence of events that has made Danica Patrick such a hot phenomenon in racing, and spawned a rabid Danica-mania everywhere the Indy Racing League goes, according to IndyCar Series points leader Dan Wheldon.

The tail hasn't been wagging the dog at tracks around the country, where Danica has brought about an increase in attendance, or in front of the national audience, where television ratings for the sometimes struggling series have enjoyed a significant spike.

"She was fast before she was famous," said Wheldon.

Wheldon, who will battle Patrick and the rest of the field here Sunday as Michigan International Speedway hosts the Fire-

stone Indy 400, said everyone has been able to take advantage of the enhanced spotlight Patrick has drawn to open-wheel racing.

"You have to like what she has done for the sport," he said. "She has a lot to do with the TV ratings, and I think she's bringing a lot more fans to the race tracks. There are not many races you go to now where you see open stands, and she's a lot to do with that."

Patrick, a rookie in the IndyCar Series who has just 10 races on her resume, has made this a bull market for the IRL. Since she appeared on the stage, attendance, television ratings, sponsor exposure, licensed product sales and media attention are all up - some of them way up.

And while those spirals continue to climb, the arc on the graph seems to have its genesis in Patrick's electrifying warm-up at the Indy 500, where she was the fastest rookie, then the fastest driver of all with a 229.880 mph practice lap.

"Ever since she went the fastest that day at Indy, our phones have been ringing off the hook," said Tom Savage, the IRL's director of media relations. "There's been a big jump in the TV numbers, and you can't say it's all Danica, but I don't think there's any question that a lot of it is due to her."

Savage said Patrick snared the Indy 500 its first Sports Illustrated cover in 20 years, and she has drawn a gaggle of non-traditional news outlets out to the track.

"We've heard from every national magazine, every television news magazine show, and a lot of major news outlets that ignored us before," he said. "The demand is there, and there are many on the Danica beat."

Patrick has not won a race yet, but has been in contention a number of times and her phenomenon shows no signs of waning. MIS spokesman Bill Janitz said her presence on the circuit has created a substantial pre-race buzz.

"We've definitely seen an increase in interest in this race, and we can attribute that to

Danica," Janitz said.

"We really won't know until Sunday what the true impact will be, in terms of ticket sales, but what I can say at this point is that Danica is bringing some fans out here who not only would not normally follow IndyCar racing, but they would not follow auto racing at all. She has brought a different faction of people out, and they are now interested in the sport."

Richmond International Speedway spokesman Keith Green said his track experienced a similar phenomenon when the IRL came to town a month ago.

"We certainly saw an increase not only in ticket sales, but in interest in the event. Really the whole buzz level increased dramatically," Green said. "It's not all her, but this series was really looking for a shot in the arm, and she has been it."

Green cited one customer the Richmond ticket office received who walked in the door and said simply: "I want a ticket to this Danica thing."

Mike Zizzo from Texas Motor Speedway, which hosted the IRL event that followed the Indy 500, said his track spent an additional $100,000 in advertising and promotions to make its materials more "Danica-specific" since she came away from Indy so much in demand.

Patrick has managed to maintain a focus on racing while living in the eye of that storm of attention she has created.

"I think this is great racing out here, and anything that brings more attention to this sport is a positive thing," she said. "The attention that is happening is a good thing, and I think everybody recognizes that. At the same time, I'm not going to take on more than I can handle or deal with. We're not going to put the car out of first place in our minds."

Patrick, who led the Indy 500 at one point late in the race on her way to a fourth-place finish, said she has been able to keep things in perspective. She has gone from being a virtual unknown three months ago to one of the most recognizable women in America.

"I'm very fortunate with

everything that has happened, and the situation I'm in," she said. "I'm in a very good place."

Wheldon, who has certainly sacrificed some of the spotlight that should be his as the Indy 500 champ while Danica mania goes on around him, said he does not want her talent to be overlooked in the midst of her celebrity.

"Sure she's a woman, and she's hot, but the real difference here is that Danica is very good at what she does on the race track," Wheldon said.

"I've seen other racing series trying to hype up their female drivers, but put Danica up against any of them and she'd blow them away. All of the hype around her is there and it doesn't seem to be fading at all, but some people forget that first and foremost, she is a very good race car driver."

AUTOGRAPH FLAP: It looks like the drivers from Andretti Green Racing who boycotted an IRL mandatory autograph session last weekend in Milwaukee will take part in a similar event in Jackson, Mich., this weekend, the IRL said yesterday after the two parties met to discuss the matter.

Miffed over what it felt was preferential treatment given to Rahal Letterman driver Danica Patrick, the Andretti team had kept series leader Dan Wheldon and reigning champion Tony Kanaan, as well as Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta, out of the session. Milwaukee track officials, anticipating a big crowd for Patrick, created separate lines - one for her, and one for the rest of the drivers.

Wheldon said he was simply following orders. "Any time that your boss either tells you yes or no, you have to respect their

decision," he said.

Patrick said it was wrong to assume the autograph seekers were all interested in her.

"Not everybody's going to be a Danica fan," she said. "My uncle is a really big Tony Kanaan fan."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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