Opinion: Indy 500 wrong to focus on Duno, Danica

Opinion: Indy 500 wrong to focus on Duno, Danica

Woman drivers just gimmicks — series needs to find, develop real stars
By Bob Cook
May 22, 2007

One of the biggest attractions at the Indianapolis 500 this year is a driver who combines the rocket-scientist smarts of female racing pioneer Janet Guthrie with the drop-dead gorgeous looks of a telenovela hottie.

Alas, Milka Duno, one of a record three women in the field, has the driving ability of Jack Miller the racing dentist, whose white-knuckle driving was to auto racing as Sir Lawrence Olivier’s character in the movie "Marathon Man" was to tooth extraction.

That the 35-year-old Venezuelan engineer-turned-driver is getting so much attention speaks to the sad state of affairs for open-wheel racing in America.

Open-wheel racing has been reeling since the 1995 rift between CART (now called Champ Car) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which split the sport into two series just as NASCAR was rising to national prominence. To become more than a niche draw, open-wheel racing needs a real star — someone who can attract fans to a sport that, in terms of quality of racing, is far more exciting than those racin’ taxicabs.

Instead, year after year, the attention to Indy-car racing focuses on gimmicks like Duno.

The IndyCar publicity machine's anemic horsepower is the equivalent of go-kart racing. Witness hiring Kiss’ Gene Simmons to handle the league’s image — based on his formula for success, is he supposed to have drivers wear codpieces, spit flames, and expose their hairy man-boobs? This year, the circuit is promoting four drivers: Dan Wheldon, Sam Hornish Jr., Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick. These selections tell you how Duno can become such a big story.

Wheldon is a legitimate driver to hype. He is the best open-wheel driver in America, with 13 victories in 67 starts over the past five years, including two victories (Homestead-Miami, and Kansas) in the first four races in 2007. He won the Indy 500 in 2005, the same year he took the league championship, and has finished second in points in 2004 and 2006.

Wheldon, who will turn 29 on June 22, is a dashing, devil-may-care Englishman, the likes of which Indy hasn’t seen since Graham Hill and Jim Clark in the 1960s. Did I mention he’s English? It would be much easier for Indy to connect with U.S. fans if Wheldon grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., rather than merely residing there.

Of course, if Wheldon did grow up in the U.S., he might be doing what Hornish is doing — flirting with NASCAR. That makes promoting Hornish problematic, even though he is the defending Indy 500 champ, winner of three IndyCar series titles, and as Middle American as they come, the proud son of small-town Ohio.

Hornish hasn’t officially made the jump to NASCAR, but he’s run a few Busch Series races for his boss, Roger Penske, and seems primed to join Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and other ex-IndyCar drivers who have sought greater fortune in roofed vehicles. Penske warns such a jump is not easy to make, but the money and exposure are just too tempting.

But at least with Wheldon and Hornish, IndyCar is pumping up legitimate stars. By trying to focus attention on Marco Andretti and Patrick, IndyCar creates the environment that opens up the chance to make gimmicks such as Duno the center of attention.


Marco Andretti, only 20, has had his moments, but there’s no way he would be racing in a major series if he wasn’t the grandson of Mario, son of Michael. The Unser and Foyt dynasties are dying on the vine, and IndyCar is desperate for a reliable big name to pull some weight, as lesser Andrettis like Jeff, son of Mario, and John, nephew of Mario (back at Indy this year after some time and limited success in NASCAR), could not.

Marco finished second in last year’s Indianapolis 500, but this season, racing for his father’s team, has been a disaster. He finished fourth in St. Petersburg, but otherwise has recorded one last-place finish (Homestead-Miami) and two third-from-lasts (Motegi, Kansas). Mechanical problems contributed to two of those finishes and an accident the other, but Marco’s tossing out his steering wheel in disgust is not the image of Andretti-dom IndyCar seeks.


Then again, the driver who is threatening to be the true gimmick of IndyCar is Patrick. She was a great story in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, becoming the first woman to lead the race, and finishing higher (fourth) than any woman ever had. Plus, as her photo layouts showed, she could get motors running in more ways than one.

Unfortunately, Patrick has proven to be a middle-of-the-pack driver. Fourth place is as close to the checkered flag as she has gotten. Switching to Andretti Green Racing — the same team featuring Marco — this year after two seasons with Rahal Letterman has done Patrick no favors so far. Her best finish was seventh, at Kansas. For a while, Patrick was an inspiring story, but if you’re not winning races, the novelty wears off.

Certainly, there are other drivers who could be star material in the IndyCar circuit. Tony Kanaan, with eight career wins, including a victory this year at Motegi, is willing to take that role. He has met with IndyCar officials about promoting up-front drivers such as himself, and old rival (and two-time Indy 500 winner) Helio Castroneves. The unfortunate reality for both is that selling Brazilians to the American public is, pardon the pun, a nonstarter.

So who can capture the American imagination for the IndyCar series? Right now, that driver doesn’t exist, which is why the biggest news out of Indy is that three women qualified: Patrick, Sarah Fisher and (barely) Duno.

Perhaps Marco fulfills his familial destiny to win everywhere — but Indy. Perhaps Patrick, still only 25, will begin proving she can will a car to victory. Perhaps Hornish never goes anywhere, and becomes the face of IndyCar racing for the long term.

Perhaps Wheldon sheds his English accent and starts saying things like "rubbin’ is racin’."

Something radical has to happen. The Indianapolis 500 is still the biggest race in the world, but open-wheel racing needs more than the fumes of past 500s to keep its relevance in America. Maybe this year’s Indy 500 pace-car driver, Patrick "Dr. McDreamy" Dempsey, should drive in the actual race. OK, he would be a gimmick. But at least he’s already a star.

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Re: Opinion: Indy 500 wrong to focus on Duno, Danica

mvbski wrote:



Alas, Milka Duno, one of a record three women in the field, has the driving ability of Jack Miller the racing dentist, whose white-knuckle driving was to auto racing as Sir Lawrence Olivier’s character in the movie "Marathon Man" was to tooth extraction.

That the 35-year-old Venezuelan engineer-turned-driver is getting so much attention speaks to the sad state of affairs for open-wheel racing in America.

Sad but this so true since she can't drive a lick.  :-

[img]http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/j/msnbc/compo … 50x350.jpg[/img]

Plus she isn't hot  yikes

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