The story almost got past me, the headline was "Danica Patrick eyed for new American F1 team." In the haze of the NBA All-Star weekend and the Alex Rodriguez contrition tour, the bit about America's most well-known female driver just about fell by the wayside. I went on to read that team USF1, which will be introduced next week, is considering putting Patrick as one of its two drivers. This new team will be based in Charlotte, North Carolina, the heart of NASCAR country.
"She's great. She gets a lot of press," the USF1 technical director Ken Anderson said. I will give him that. Patrick has been the focal point of IndyCar racing in America since joining the sport. Beyond her made-for-marketing looks, she's a good driver and a fantastic ambassador of the sport. That being said, the only thing less relevant to American sports fans than IndyCar, is Formula One racing. There, I said it. Anderson disagrees.
"It's the biggest sport in the world and the biggest TV show in the world," Anderson said about Formula One. "NASCAR has just become a national sport, never mind an international sport." Hold on for a second. I can see how Danica's star power would appeal to a worldwide audience if she joined Formula One. I don't know if she could ever compete with Lewis Hamilton on the track, but for sponsors, she would be a dream come true.
This is not as much about Danica as it is about Formula One and America. It is a niche sport at best here. It is impossible to find races on television, much less going to see them in person. To get where Formula One is in America you have to go back to the late 1970s and compare IndyCar to NASCAR. I grew up one state away from Indiana and every May the Indy 500 was one of our country's must see sporting events. My family never missed the race. Drivers like AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti were household names as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are today.
NASCAR however was a southern sport. The Daytona 500, the sport's premier race, was a big draw, but not until 1979 did the race and NASCAR take the leap to becoming a player on the national sports landscape. The 1979 Daytona 500 was the first to be broadcast live on national TV. A final lap crash between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison was followed by a fist-fight between the two drivers, to the amazement of sports fans everywhere. The sport instantly jumped out of the south and became national.
Over the next two decades NASCAR's rise continued and as it did, it took fans away from Indy racing. By the 1990s the Daytona 500 became the must watch race every year, while the Indy 500 and the sport as a whole, though still popular, began to decline. This brings us back to the current state of Formula One in America, a sport we put side by side with IndyCar. Sports fans will see a highlight on TV only occasionally.
I do not want to be the territorial American here, but a lot of sports fans love the sports that were created here and are wary of those born overseas. We want contact in our sports, NFL, NBA, even baseball has some contact. NASCAR is full contact racing while Formula One is a finesse sport. NASCAR has spoken with Danica Patrick in the past. Former Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya made the switch. His racing skill have not shown many results in NASCAR, but his presence has opened up the sport to a new spectrum of fans. I think Danica's presence in Formula One would do the same, just not here.