Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced yesterday a raft of changes to the Month of May. You can read about the particulars elsewhere, but here’s a quick summary of what they announced:
Opening Day – Saturday May 15 (includes Rookie Orientation somehow, it’s unclear how at this time)
Practice – Sunday May 16 through Friday May 21
Pole Day – Saturday May 22
Bump Day – Sunday May 23
Carb Day – Friday May 28
Race Day – Sunday May 30
First, I’ll give them props for moving Opening Day from a Tuesday to the weekend. That was a no-brainer, in my opinion, and something that should have been taken care of this year.
I’m going to keep the criticism very short and sweet, due to some severe time limitations on my part that’ll keep me out of the loop for several days here. In my opinion, this is not the most thought out schedule that IMS could have come up with. What we got is seven days of practice and two days of qualifying, way more practice than what’s needed for two days of qualifying. To boot, any team that would have been prone to doing a “second week” program for additional car or cars after putting a primary car or cars into the race on the first weekend will no longer have that option. With the new schedule, they will be trying to get their primary cars into the race early on Saturday, and then they’ll have a matter of mere hours to put together additional efforts, where before they had several days.
Opening Day – Friday May 14 (perfect for folks looking to play hooky)
Practice – Saturday May 15
Pole Day (first 21 grid slots) – Sunday May 16
Track Closed – Monday May 17 through Wednesday May 19
Practice – Thursday May 20 and Friday May 21
Day 2 Qualifying (positions 22 through 33) – Saturday May 22
Bump Day – Sunday May 23
Carb Day – Friday May 28
Race Day – Sunday May 30
You want days on track cut back, so that teams aren’t spending as much money on track time? My pre-race schedule has seven total days of pre-Carb Day track time, eight if you’re doing ROP. The actual new schedule has nine. Mine’s one better. When are the fans most likely to come out to the track? In my opinion, that’s for qualifying, since not too many people are liable to come out for just practice. My schedule has three days of qualifying, as opposed to the actual schedule’s two. Again, one better. Less practice, more qualifying. With my schedule, there can be “second week” deals aplenty, as the teams that qualify on the first week have plenty of time to work out terms and then try to get up to speed. The actual schedule gives you less than 24 hours, from “ink drying on the contracts” to “in the qualifying chute”. My schedule is short of pre-Pole Day practice, but really, any team that’s trying to get into the first seven rows won’t need seven days of practice to tune and tune and tune (as the actual schedule has). Both schedules have days built in for weather delays, though I prefer where mine fit (Pole Day can be Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, and still leave time for second week deals).
Again, props to IMS for trying something to save the teams (and themselves) some cash, but this could have been better executed.
81 career starts; 1 win; 3 poles; 5 podiums; 13 races led; best season points finish of 5th
84 career starts; 1 win; 2 poles; 6 podiums; 13 races led; best season points finish of 6th (twice)
Startlingly similar lines there, huh? Who can tell me who those lines represent? The first one might be familiar to anybody who’s been paying attention to IndyCar news, and all of the IndyCar blogs with their chatter about this week’s JR Motorsports announcement. That’s right, the first line is the summary of Danica Patrick’s career IndyCar stats, from her debut in 2005 through now in 2009. Her level of success to date and her potential for future success have been hot topics ever since…well, right about the time she strapped into one of Bobby Rahal’s Panoz-Hondas. And now, she’s going to be tackling NASCAR in a limited format next year, with a debut in February’s ARCA race at Daytona, and then a slate of races in Dale Earnhardt Jr’s Nationwide car, whenever it doesn’t intrude on her IndyCar duties with Andretti Autosport.
Danica’s place in IndyCar and motorsports history is far from determined. People struggle on a seemingly daily basis to figure out where she stands in today’s driver hierarchy, and therefore what her projected success rate might be in NASCAR. Most people would agree that she has not been as successful as Dario Franchitti has been in IndyCar. Dario had a horrible time in his brief NASCAR career in 2008, but most people can also agree that he was not in very good equipment, nor on a particularly competitive team. The same can be said all the way around for Sam Hornish Jr. Danica is likely to be given moderately better equipment, relatively speaking, than Dario or Sam, given that JR Motorsports is basically an offshoot of the dominant Hendrick Motorsports. But, what is she going to do with that equipment?
It’ll be a tough row to hoe for her, as her complete prior experience in race cars in excess of 2200 pounds is limited to one start in an ALMS-spec Ferrari 550 Maranello in 2003 and two starts in the 24 Hours of Daytona in a Daytona Prototype in 2006 and 2009. That’s a pretty limited roster of experience in relatively low-downforce, heavy cars. It’s not going to be an overnight transition for her to get up to speed in any kind of stock car, ARCA, Nationwide, or otherwise. Nobody should expect any wins from her in a stock car in 2010, or probably even in 2011, given that she’s only making a dozen or so starts this year.
To complicate matters, she is also planning on maintaining her “day job” in the IndyCar series, which means that she’ll be doing a fair amount of jumping back and forth between a high-downforce 1600 pound car and a low-downforce 3400 pound car. Is that going to help her case in IndyCar? I’m…more than a little dubious on that.
Let me get this out there now: I am not a Danica hater. I’ve actually been a fan since her Barber Dodge days, though I’ve sure wished that she’d won more races (of any type) by now. This piece is not meant to be a demolition job on her career thus far, nor should it be taken to mean that I’m either guaranteeing or rooting against her success in NASCAR. It’d be nice if she could win some races over there, and show that an above average IndyCar driver can be competitive, given top-line equipment. However, I remain unconvinced that Danica Patrick is going to be a breakthrough star, transcending gender and sporting lines, and draw more fans into NASCAR or even into IndyCar (though she remains one of IndyCar’s marquee names).
Why is that? Well, let me get back to those two original stat lines. I’ll admit, I cheated just a little bit when I came up with the second line. That’s not representative of that driver’s complete career, though it does only omit two top-5 finishes that came in that driver’s last five years in CART. The years that those stats call out are 1981 through 1987, and the driver’s career that they represent is Kevin Cogan’s. That’s right, THE Kevin Cogan, who is largely known as something of a punchline nowadays, and who Robin Miller regularly refers to as “that damn Coooogin,” as A.J. Foyt allegedly called him at Indy in 1982.
Let’s have a closer look. Cogan burst onto the IndyCar scene with a spate of good finishes in 1981 and 1982, including a 4th at Indy in 1982 in his first full year in an IndyCar. Danica burst onto the IndyCar scene in 2005 with a couple of good finishes, led some laps at Indy, the first ever by a female, and finished 4th at Indy. Cogan made an early signing to a top team, Penske, for 1982. Danica signed on to a top team relatively early in her career, Andretti-Green, for 2007. Cogan made a high-profile, possible “rookie mistake” crash at Indy in 1982 that took out several drivers, including Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. Danica made a high-profile, possible “rookie mistake” at Indy in 2005, taking out several drivers, including Tomas Scheckter. Cogan nearly won the Indy 500 in 1986, but was passed by Bobby Rahal with less than ten laps to go. Danica nearly won the Indy 500 in 2005, but was passed by Dan Wheldon with less than 10 laps to go. Cogan followed up a long debut period of no wins by winning his 54th IndyCar start in his 6th season. Danica followed up a long debut period of no wins by winning her 50th IndyCar start in her 4th season.
Where did Cogan go from his strongest season in 1986? That season, he won the first race of the season at Phoenix, nearly won Indy, and finished 6th in the points. From there, Cogan never finished in the top-10 in IndyCar points again, though he was still driving for Pat Patrick’s team in 1987, as he had in 1986. Thereafter, he drove for smaller, less competitive teams, and never really had much of a shot at the top of the sport again. He had a solid career, all in all, even if his early promise never really panned out.
Danica’s career is far from over at this point, but her results have not really backed up the amount of attention that she’s received. The question is: how can she avoid becoming this generation’s Kevin Cogan, a driver who possibly commanded more attention than his results really warranted? A good start for Danica would be to ensure that she stays in a ride that’s capable of winning races. As long as she’s at Andretti, that will be the case, but if she starts to seriously sniff around at running NASCAR more than a dozen times per year, no front-line IndyCar team will want to put her in their car. Top (read that: championship- and race-winning) IndyCar teams are generally only interested in drivers who can compete for championships. If Danica starts to run NASCAR races during the IndyCar season, her chances of winning an IndyCar championship will be over, even if she might be able to score an occasional fluke-y win for a smaller team. Nobody has been able to successfully switch between an IndyCar and a stock car on a regular basis since Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney did it in the 1960’s, and Danica’s far from the level of those legends of the sport.
Danica can do whatever she wants, clearly, but if she wants to be remembered as a racing driver who could do more than just win a race once in a blue moon, she’s going to have to concentrate on one thing. And if NASCAR doesn’t pan out, sooner rather than later, that thing that she’ll need to concentrate on should be IndyCar, the type of car that she’s been training to drive since she was a small girl. Otherwise, 20 years from now she’s liable to be largely remembered as a novelty racer who appeared in some commercials and couldn’t deliver the goods. A lot like Kevin Cogan.
Note: Huge thanks to Sean at Race-Database.com for the fantastic one-stop racing statistics shop that he's built. I couldn't have written this without it. If you haven't seen his site, head over there now. Just make sure you've got a couple free hours to spend.