Race Weekend Central

Danica-Mania Didn’t Do ARCA Any Favors

In case you’ve been living under a rock 5,000 miles away with cotton swabs stuffed in your ears, Danica Patrick finished sixth in her stock car debut. Not her NASCAR debut, as a Yahoo! front page headline proclaimed. And while Yahoo!‘s declaration on their front page was probably just the product of some aloof intern who summarized an article for the front page without reading it, equating NASCAR to simply mean racing, it’s the perfect example of how Danica’s appearance on the ARCA circuit was nothing but good news for the series in terms of exposure and attention.

Her one, and likely only, ARCA start was nothing more than a sugar rush.

First of all, Patrick’s solid results, including an impressive save after a lap 53 spin, were by no means the spectacular debut that all the media were foaming at the mouth over. If anything, it was “been there, done that.” Fellow open-wheelers Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Speed each scored top-10 finishes in their respective ARCA debuts on plate tracks. It wasn’t even that far removed from what other female drivers have done in ARCA. Erin Crocker was the last highly touted female driver with a big name team to run ARCA and she won a pole in her first race.

This sixth-place debut overshadowed every other storyline in Saturday’s 200-miler, and there were a lot of them.

Race winner Bobby Gerhart scored his sixth career win at Daytona after coming to pit road early in the running and making adjustments under the hood because of how poorly the car was driving. To be fair, Yahoo! columnist Dan Wetzel did make notice of this: “Patrick didn’t win the race (Bobby Gerhart did).” Sort of.

Patrick Sheltra returned to his home-state track, one year after a harrowing wreck, to score a top-five finish. Alli Owens ran in the top five for much of the later portion of the race after coming back from a lap down. Hell, she arguably was the strongest-performing woman in the field. And Venturini Motorsports entered an ARCA-record five cars in the field. All of these storylines were acknowledged on TV. Acknowledged, nothing more. Add to that fact a number other regulars, including Darrell Basham, Brad Smith, Tim George Jr. to name a few, were exempted from the broadcast.

Every single one of those storylines and drivers deserved air time as they’re all ARCA regulars that actually contest the series. But they were left on the back burner, as SPEED saw it more fit to analyze everything Danica, from her hand motions to get out of a spin to the first time she ventured into the second groove (they have those at Daytona?) to the first time she utilized her in-car drinking system. Not to mention, Danica’s in-car camera was featured almost on a lap-by-lap basis.

This wasn’t coverage of an ARCA race. It was coverage of Danica Patrick.

But again, the justifications were all there. The people, the viewers and the added media coverage were all there to see Danica. And it was a small price to pay for what arcaracing.com calculated to be an “estimated media value of over $7 million.” Because of Danica, more attention was paid to ARCA than ever before. Right?

Not quite. Because of Danica, one Daytona race that happened to be sanctioned by ARCA got more attention paid to it than ever before. And thanks to the way the coverage of this race was handled, I’d wager that the vast majority of the new viewers and media that were present on Saturday won’t be coming back anytime soon.

Racing wasn’t the focus, Danica was. Like a novelty product, it was thrown in everyone’s face whether they were there to see her or to actually, gasp, watch a stock car race. And it’s hard to believe that any of the 42 other drivers in the field actually benefited from all of this extra attention.

The polesitter, James Buescher, and winner of the race, Gerhart, reportedly were able to walk unmolested away from their cars to the post-race press conferences, while masses of media (the ones that likely didn’t make it to the media center for the post-race presser) swarmed the sixth-place finisher. With over three quarters of the TV coverage focused on the GoDaddy.com No. 7, dozens of full-time ARCA teams and all of their sponsors were deprived of any significant TV time to enjoy all the race’s extra viewers.

And going back to all the media attention, it’s abundantly clear that the ARCA Series and its competitors weren’t even something that the majority of the journalists even took seriously. For all the hype that Danica got this weekend and has gotten her whole career for being a woman, the other five females in the field were all but an afterthought. Milka Duno and Leilani Munter were forgotten about even before being caught up in the race’s first wreck. Owens was marginalized even though she outran Danica for much of the race after a comeback of her own.

Jennifer Jo Cobb, while off the pace for much of the race, managed to stay out of trouble and pick up a top-20 finish. And as for Jill George, who was involved in a vicious crash on lap 26, she became nothing more than a whipping girl for the plethora of media who apparently came into Saturday with no appreciation or understanding of the fact that ARCA is a development series (though to be fair, with Cup guys destroying the Nationwide Series, a lot of them probably can’t fathom what a development series is).

Just look at the many columns about the ARCA race that came out of Daytona. The majority of them didn’t talk about anything but Danica. For the few that actually bothered to consider the fact that the ARCA Racing Series actually will continue even as Danica moves on, all they could find to talk about was how the inexperience in the field led to a number of wrecks and incidents that shouldn’t have happened.

Nate Ryan tweeted an older article on how ARCA needed to go back and reconfigure how they approve drivers for their superspeedway races. And Shawn Courchesne, the same man who insisted that Ken Schrader had no place to be running in the Budweiser Shootout (yes, the same Shootout he has won twice), went even further, implying that having inexperienced drivers running ARCA races at superspeedway tracks was a tragedy waiting to happen.

To everyone out there making a big deal of inexperience at superspeedway racing, including NASCAR driver Regan Smith, who tweeted during the race:

Wake up.

Superspeedway racing is dangerous, experience or not. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, experience or not.

Experience didn’t stop the Cup Series regulars from wrecking over a half-dozen cars practicing for an exhibition race. It didn’t stop a four-time Sprint Cup champion and a two-time NASCAR national series champion from triggering a wreck that took out half the Shootout field. And that was the weekend before they run the first superspeedway race of the regular season that actually counts for something.

But none of that really matters, does it? Next week, the Sprint Cup Series will rightfully take center stage for the Great American race, Danica will be hogging the Nationwide Series stage and the ARCA race will be all but a distant memory.

It didn’t have to be like that. Yes, because of Danica, the focus of the entire racing world for a few hours on Saturday was on the ARCA Racing Series. And though there were lots of wrecks (just like in any other restrictor-plate race at any level of racing), the feverish charge to the finish was memorable, rivaling any of the action seen in the Shootout later that night. ARCA’s competitors, officiating and on-track product had nothing to be ashamed of.

Alas, none of that will be remembered, for the media and the broadcast crew had decided on the story before they ever got to the track. Danica was going to be a success, prove her talent, and got ready to race in the Nationwide Series. And because of that, all the viewers who ordinarily wouldn’t tune into an ARCA race likely won’t do so again.

For they didn’t see a stock car race, they saw an infomercial. They didn’t see a development series at work, they saw a bunch of amateurs who have no place racing because they drive in the Cup Series (or have a name worthy of doing so).

They didn’t see an ARCA race. They saw Danica.

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