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ABC leans on Patrick
By JOHN C. COTEY
Published May 27, 2005
Can Danica Patrick save the ratings for the Indianapolis 500?
Can she make people care again?
Can she make the race once again the jewel of Memorial Day weekend television viewing?
On a conference call with ABC executives Wednesday, that's pretty much all anyone wanted to know.
The answer from ABC?
We sure hope so.
"I think, clearly, if Danica should take the lead in this event, and she certainly has the equipment and a good slot in the starting grid, that yeah ... it will grab a heck of a lot of attention," Bob Toms, senior producer for ABC, said. "People will take note. She has already captured an amazing amount of attention, a lot more than any of us expected.
"Will it affect the ratings? Who knows?"
Sunday, coverage of the 89th Indianapolis 500 begins at noon on Ch. 28, and ABC is banking on the littlest driver in the field to deliver.
If you haven't heard, you will: Patrick is a woman. Unlike those before her - Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher - she is considered the real deal. Unlike those before her, she has one of the top racing teams, Rahal Letterman, behind her. Unlike those before her, she is given a legitimate chance to win.
"I think she has a great opportunity to do very well," said analyst Scott Goodyear, who has five top 20 Indy 500 finishes to his credit.
It was Fisher who ended his last Indy 500 race in 2001.
"Make no mistake," pit reporter Jack Arute said, "Danica is as feisty and as focused and as tough a competitor that I've ever been around in close to 30 years of being part of this Indy 500."
Arute can remember the salad days, when the Indy 500 was the race to watch and consistently posted double-digit ratings. In the past 10 years, the ratings have been cut in half, from an 8.4 in 1995 to a 4.1 last year.
NASCAR (and Sunday's competition, the Coca-Cola 600) has steamrolled past the Indy 500 the past 10 years or so, for a number of reasons. But one of the biggest is star power.
NASCAR has it; the IRL doesn't.
"When we go and watch the Olympics, most of the time we don't know who the people are," Arute said. "We (introduce them) by telling compelling stories. It takes one person and one story that will catapult you exponentially into the consciousness of the American sporting public. I think that we're on our way, and we were certainly on the brink last year."
Patrick alone can't save the Indy 500 or its ratings unless she wins, but a good finish could make the rest of the IRL season worth a look. If what makes her different from her female predecessors is talent, ABC is smart to milk her for everything it can get.
She'll be the focus of one of the nine on-car cameras, and Goodyear and first-year play-by-play announcer Todd Harris will be sure to mention her often.
But ABC must not forget the rest of the field. Patrick is the best story and will be the focus of a lengthy prerace feature, but there are others ABC should promote, such as pole-sitter Tony Kanaan. The IRL gets one good chance yearly to hook viewers on its product, and if that hook is out of the race, it could mean another year playing runnerup to NASCAR.
"This is our one opportunity," Arute said. "This is where he can help people understand what makes IndyCar racing so unique. If we get the weather cooperation, we've got a wonderful opportunity to make a giant step forward. And I'm talking into the national consciousness, not the motor sports consciousness, the national consciousness."