Racing: Danica vs. NASCAR
By Mike Mulhern
CHARLOTTE ó You’ll have to pardon Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler for having mixed emotions about Danica Patrick’s historic IndyCar tour victory on Sunday.
First of all, women have been racing in NASCAR since its earliest days, and, second, Wheeler now has to promote head-to-head against Patrick, who’ll be headlining May’s Indianapolis 500 when Wheeler will be the host for the second Memorial Day feature, his Coca-Cola 600.
Wheeler was the man who almost single-handedly made Janet Guthrie such a national success story more than 30 years ago. She’d “flunked” out of the Indy 500 qualifying in 1976, but Wheeler quickly brought her to Charlotte for his 600 ó she finished a respectable 15th, and thus won a spot in next season’s Daytona 500, becoming the first woman to gain a starting spot in the field for that famous race. Guthrie was an amazing eighth with only 25 miles to go when her motor started failing; she finished 12th.
Nevertheless, a woman has yet to win a NASCAR Cup tour race in the modern era.
Wheeler was a bit more animated about his latest creative touch, for the coming All-Star race on May 17.
“We’ve been racking our brains about what we can do to add some excitement to the All-Star week,” Wheeler said at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, while Clint Bowyer ó the day’s featured driver ó was out testing the soft walls. “The NBA has a slam-dunk competition. Major League Baseball has a home-run derby.
“So we’ve come up with we’re calling the Pennzoil Burnout ówe pick five top drivers, and see who can do the best burnout,” Wheeler said. “The winner will get $10,000 to donate to his favorite charity.”
The five ó “We’ll have a secret panel to choose them” ó will be picked from among the 20 drivers already in the All-Star race.
“This is all about having fun … and competing,” Wheeler said.
So how can NASCAR capitalize on Patrick’s breakthrough win; how can Wheeler capitalize on her victory?
“It was a great achievement, very historic, and I congratulate her for doing that … particularly for taking that 12-hour flight back to Long Beach (to watch the Champ Car half of the IndyCar weekend doubleheader), because not many people would have done that,” Wheeler said.
“Her win will certainly go down as one of the magic moments in racing history…. But I don’t think it will have any significant impact on NASCAR.”
Maybe it would, if NASCAR executives, promoters and TV bosses would push for NASCAR-Indy Racing League doubleheaders: Both series already run on just about every track in the country (except Daytona and Talladega).
Maybe NASCAR officials are scared to run such doubleheaders.
“We’ve got speedways, and they’re not ‘NASCAR’ speedways, just speedways, and we need to run things on them,” Wheeler said. “But running a race without a roof over your head (against bad weather), you have to make sure everything you do is right.
“I don’t know if a NASCAR Sprint Cup-IRL doubleheader the same day would work.”
But maybe a Saturday night IRL race followed by a Sunday NASCAR race?
“You could look at that,” Wheeler said.
So there’s no way for NASCAR promoters, executives, team owners, to get Patrick in a stock car?
“A number of (NASCAR) people have talked to her (about coming to NASCAR),” Wheeler said. “But right now she’s comfortable where she is. And this is a big jump, as we know, to move from open-wheel IndyCars. Because of the wide tires.
“People forget IndyCars have tires twice as wide as ours, and significantly softer. Making this move would be tough, and she probably just doesn’t want to do it right now, and I don’t blame her.”
Is Patrick afraid to try NASCAR?
“Oh, no, she’s not scared of NASCAR,” Wheeler said. “She’s got it made where she is. Why change?”
Patrick’s win again raises the question of whether NASCAR ó including the sanctioning body, its teams, the Detroit carmakers, the sport’s many sponsors, and the promoters ó is doing enough for diversity?
“I don’t think you ever do enough,” Wheeler said. “But it’s just going to be a natural process. And I just had a female come to my office last week (looking for a NASCAR ride), and I’ve got another one coming this week….
“There are a lot of females racing across American right now. In our Legends and Bandoleros programs, we probably have 150 females racing across the country. And a lot of them are young, one as young as seven. And there’s where you have to start with diversity ó whether it’s females, Hispanics, or African-Americans ó getting them started young enough….
“We just have to let them get in cars and go.”