Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 27, 2010

Danica Does New Hampshire

Twice each year, in June and September, NASCAR comes to central New Hampshire for its only dates in New England. The 1.058 mile oval track at Loudon, nicknamed “The Magic Mile” and celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2010, was originally the dream of Bob Bahre. For more than fifteen years it was one of a steadily dwindling number of independently owned tracks on the NASCAR circuit. Finally in late 2007 the aging Bahre sold the track to Bruton Smith. Smith’s Speedway Motorsports along with a subsidiary of the NASCAR-owning France family own most of the tracks on which the top stock car circuit competes.

There was great angst among New England racing fans when the sale was announced.  The fear was that Smith would transfer one of Loudon’s two dates to one of his larger tracks. At the time the most likely winner of a much-prized NASCAR date was thought to be Smith’s track in Las Vegas.  But the dreaded transfer of one of the prime dates has not occurred. Instead, Speedway Motorsports has shown a willingness to invest in improvements to the facilities and enhance the race day experience by expanding concessions and race-related attractions around the track. At least for now, New Hampshire’s two weekends of racing seem safe.

In both June and September the big day of the weekend is of course Sunday, when the Sprint Cup Series runs a 300 mile race. During the first twenty-six weeks of the Sprint Cup season, all drivers compete for points based on their finish in each race. The goal is to finish among the top twelve points leaders at the end of this portion of the season. The June race at Loudon marks the beginning of a ten race countdown to the end of that portion of the season. After that the point totals are reset so that during the year’s final ten races, while all drivers continue to compete and earn points, only those top twelve have a chance to win NASCAR’s annual championship. New Hampshire’s September race is always the first of the ten in the Chase for the Championship.

But as important as Loudon’s two Sundays are on the NASCAR calendar, for me the better day is always Saturday. Sunday is a long day of making one’s way to and from a relatively inaccessible track with more than 100,000 other fans in order to see a single race. Saturday’s attendance is typically 25% of Sundays, so the track is much easier to get into and out of, and there is room to spread out and relax. And during a full day at the track spectators will see the Sprint Cup drivers practice, the top “minor-league” drivers from either the Nationwide stock car Series (in June) or the Camping World truck Series (in September) run two-lap qualifying for their event, an always exciting and often wild 100-lap event for the Whalen Modified Series, and a 200-lap event for either the Nationwide or Camping World Series.  Sometimes, if regional series races scheduled for Thursday or Friday have been rained out, they may be rescheduled for Saturday as well. More racing for half the cost and less traffic make Saturday of every NASCAR weekend Fun Day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Added to all that yesterday was the fact that there was history to be made. For yesterday Danica Patrick returned to NASCAR. The photogenic Patrick had announced earlier this year a plan to run a limited schedule of Nationwide Series races in an attempt to cross over from open-wheeled Indy Car racing to stock cars. That schedule of thirteen races was designed to minimize conflicts with her existing Indy Car schedule. What that meant was that she raced in three early-season races in February, after which she wasn’t seen in a NASCAR garage again until this weekend in New Hampshire.

As an Indy Car driver, Patrick has racked up an impressive list of firsts. Rookie of the Year in 2005, she is also the first woman to win an Indy Car race, the first to lead the Indianapolis 500, and has the highest finish by a woman in the 500 (third in 2009).

But NASCAR’s recent history includes several unhappy attempts by open-wheeled drivers to cross over to stock cars. Anyone glancing at pictures of the two vehicles would readily understand the problem. They could not be more different while both being automobiles. An Indy Car is a rear-engine, open-wheeled, open-cockpit, relatively light vehicle. A Nationwide Series car is a heavy, front-engine facsimile of the cars we all drive every day. Be it weight, aerodynamics, power, or handling; virtually every key aspect of driving the two types of vehicles is different. Moving from one to another is not like a basketball player moving from college to the pros and having to adapt to a three foot longer three point arc. It’s more akin to asking Derek Jeter to play cricket. Yes, the two games have some similarities; but those are far outweighed by their differences.

That certainly showed in Patrick’s performance on Saturday. Starting 25th, she was victimized early on when Morgan Shepherd got loose in turn one and wound up putting her into the wall. The damage was fortunately minimal, but she ran in the back of the pack for the rest of the day and wound up finishing 30th. That finish mirrored similarly uninspiring results in her three February races. More telling were her radio communications with her spotter and pit crew chief. As she asked for advice and lamented her inability to figure out how to pass cars in front of her, it became clear to anyone listening that when it comes to driving stock cars, Danica Patrick is very much a new student, with lots and lots to learn.

This raises two questions. The first is whether fans will allow her a learning curve, or conclude that Patrick’s foray into NASCAR is just an over-hyped absurdity. Despite their redneck reputation, I think most NASCAR fans understand their sport and appreciate just how hard it is. Certainly she got a tremendous reception from the fans at Loudon, where Saturday ticket sales were 30% higher than normal. The merchandise trailer with her image on the side was doing a brisk business throughout the day. That business included my purchase of two t-shirts, one for myself and one for a friend. She’s clearly a popular driver, and is likely to remain so.

In that regard, it’s perhaps a fitting irony that her Chevrolet is owned by JRMotorsports. The JR in that company’s name is a reference to Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver. Dale Junior’s popularity stems in some part from his ability to attract a new generation of younger fans to the sport, and in very large part from his being the son of a deceased legend. Increasingly, it seems not to stem from his performance on the track. For a time, Junior’s middling results were attributed to the lack of resources of his family-owned racing operation. But when he moved to NASCAR’s powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, those reasons evaporated while his middling results continued. He remains enormously popular, even as some of his most ardent fans have begun to acknowledge that their hero may not be an elite driver.

The second and harder question is whether her limited Nationwide Series schedule is enough racing for Danica Patrick to learn what she needs to learn. Having now run four races, she is committed to just three more over the next three months before finally running six times in October and November once the Indy Car schedule winds down. That’s a NASCAR schedule that leaves me imagining more Saturday’s like yesterday. If that proves to be the case, then as a NASCAR competitor Danica Patrick will unfortunately become little more than a sideshow.

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