Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 16, 2012

The Education Of Danica Continues

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life spent the weekend at the NASCAR races in Loudon, NH; thus this post is one day later than usual.

While it’s true of every sport that being there in person is fundamentally different from watching on television, the most profound difference between the two experiences has to be at a NASCAR race. Yes, television has cameras in the cars and instant replay and multiple angles and extreme close-ups; things that only the viewer at home can experience. But actually being at a race amounts to a constant reminder, through assaults on all of one’s senses, that one isn’t sitting back in the living room recliner, remote in hand. Certainly that was the case this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as NASCAR paid the first of its two annual visits to New England.

Though the folks at Fox, ABC/ESPN, and TNT try mightily, there is simply no way that they can transfer the sound of a race to even the most sophisticated home theater. Forty-three four-wheeled machines, each producing the power of anywhere from 700 to more than 850 horses depending on the particular series being run, collectively make a noise that is beyond loud. It is a constant rumble, an angry growl that varies just slightly in pitch and intensity as the cars sweep close by and then head off to the far end of the oval. It renders attempts at conversation pointless, leaving each person in the massive crowd to take in the race as an essentially solitary experience. In the end it is a noise that is felt as much as it is heard, seemingly coming from within one even as it is all around, shaking the very air. Combine that noise with the heat of a summer afternoon as the sun bakes down from above, the inevitable grit that is scarcely noticeable at any moment but that accumulates on one’s clothing and hair over the course of a day spent in close proximity to those powerful machines, the acrid stench of burning rubber when the eventual winner does celebratory spinouts along the front straightaway, and the press and mania of being in a crowd of thousands (usually close to 100,000 on Sunday) intently focused on a single event playing out before them, and instant replay pales by comparison.

The live NASCAR experience of sound, sight, heat, dirt, and crowd momentum is enriched with the use of a single electronic device, one that is archaic and simplistic in 2012. The most essential electronic accoutrement at a race isn’t a tablet or a smart phone, but rather a simple scanner. With a scanner and a headset (which also cuts down on the auditory assault, making the noise all the more an experience that is felt as much as heard), one can listen in on all the communication between drivers, spotters, and pit crews; or tune into the radio or television coverage of the race. While many fans opt for one of the latter, essentially combining their live experience with a familiar part of watching from home, tuning into the talk between the drivers and their crews can provide context and background to the action one is observing. On Saturday at Loudon one learned a lot by listening to the communications involving a driver who was learning a lot.

Although she didn’t take the checkered flag, Danica Patrick was the unquestioned star of Saturday’s F.W. Webb 200 race in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, outshining even the half-dozen drivers from the top-tier Sprint Cup Series who opted to drive in what amounts to NASCAR’s developmental league. After two years of dividing her time between the IndyCar circuit and NASCAR, the 30-year old Patrick left the open-wheeled racers at the end of 2011 to focus on stock cars. This year she is running a full schedule in the Nationwide Series, where she drives for Dale Earnhardt Junior’s JR Motorsports; while also running a limited schedule of ten races in the Sprint Cup Series for a combined ownership team of Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing. Patrick’s glamor and novelty gave her an instant fan base, and she gained immediate credibility and likely deflected some potential sexist sentiment from traditionalists by picking as her bosses in the two series the sport’s most popular driver in Earnhardt Junior and three-time Sprint Cup champion and fan favorite Tony Stewart.

Two years ago, when I listened in during her first appearance in New Hampshire behind the steering wheel of a stock car, Patrick often seemed lost. Describing the car’s handling to her crew chief, she used the foreign language of IndyCar, referring to “understeer” and “oversteer” for situations where the response to turning the wheel was less or more than what she desired. When that race finished she radioed in with a classic rookie question, “where do I go now?” On Saturday she was considerably more polished, using the stock car terms of “tight” and “loose,” and offering detailed descriptions of how the car was handling prior to pit stops, so that her crew chief could best decide what changes to make in the vehicle’s setup.

But the most striking aspect of the in-race radio communication with the #7 Chevrolet was the near-constant stream of commentary to Patrick from her spotter and crew chief. The spotters for all the drivers are stationed high atop the roof of the luxury box seats along the front straight, and each is understandably talkative whenever his driver is in traffic. It’s the spotter’s job to accurately and instantly inform a driver if they are clear of other traffic; and if not to convey, often with just a word or two, exactly where the neighboring car is located. Drivers are trained to focus entirely on driving their car, ignoring the natural human tendency to glance at a mirror or turn one’s head. At 180 miles per hour a distraction of just a split second can make all the difference between running cleanly and putting a car into the wall. But if a driver is in clean air their spotter is normally silent; and among experienced NASCAR drivers talk between the cockpit and the pit often occurs infrequently.

Patrick is not yet an experienced NASCAR driver, and her spotter and crew chief were in her ear throughout the race. She was told the time of every single lap, and whether it represented an acceptable result. She was reminded constantly to adhere to a low line, running through the turns near the bottom of the race track, on a day when conditions at the one-mile oval made that the fastest route from start to finish. If she was losing ground to the car in front of her, she was admonished to follow that car’s line, which was almost always half a lane or so lower than the path she was running. The instructive messages were by turn scolding and supportive, hard-nosed teacher alternating with enthusiastic cheerleader.

It was a reminder that Patrick still has much to learn; but her willingness to take it all in and do her best to respond was also a clear sign that she wants to do so. On Saturday the exhortations were not enough to propel the #7 car to victory, but by late in the race she had moved from an 18th place start up to 10th. Then coming out of turn four Patrick found herself the middle car in some dangerous three-wide racing. The car behind and inside her nudged her left rear bumper, pushing her ever so slightly up the track where she made contact with the car to her outside. In an instant Patrick’s car started to spin. It is a moment that almost always ends with a car sliding up into the wall. Given the multitude of safety features in modern stock cars injury is unlikely, but a spin into the wall virtually always results in sufficient damage to the car to end a driver’s day. In that harrowing instant, Danica Patrick showed that while she may still be learning the finer points of stock car racing, she definitely knows how to drive. She muscled the Chevy through a controlled 360 degree spin in the middle of the track as traffic coming from behind dove high and low around her. As the car’s front end came back around to face the distant first turn she straightened the wheel and accelerated away, having somehow never come close to making contact with either wall. The spin cost her track position, and she wound up in 14th place. After the race she was immediately on the radio taking responsibility for it, say “I know I fucked up.” In truth it was mostly some bad racing luck, followed by a remarkable bit of driving to avoid a far worse fate.

With one more learning experience behind her, Patrick moves on to the second half of the Nationwide Series schedule and seven more Sprint Cup races in 2012. The plan is that she eventually becomes a full-time driver in NASCAR’s top series. Many drivers before her have tried to move from open-wheeled racing to NASCAR. Four-time and defending IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti met with such poor results he abandoned the move after a year in 2008 and went back to IndyCar. Others, like Indianapolis 500 winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr., have struggled to achieve anything resembling their open-wheeled results in NASCAR. On the other hand, Patrick can also look to her boss in the Sprint Cup Series. In addition to his three NASCAR championships, Tony Stewart won the IndyCar crown in 1997 before making the leap to NASCAR. How Danica ultimately fares remains to be seen. But at Loudon this past weekend there was a serious student, some determined teachers, and a driver who in the heat of the moment displayed uncanny instincts and remarkable skill.

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