News Analysis: Danica Patrick to retire from full-time racing

What happened: Danica Patrick will retire from full-time racing and conclude her career with two races next season: the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, she announced Friday afternoon. In an emotional and often tearful news conference, Patrick said she wasn’t forced into leaving NASCAR but was “nudged” into the next phase of her life after a ride for 2018 did not materialize. The 35-year-old has seven top-10 finishes and no top-fives in 189 career Cup Series races. Patrick acknowledged she has had “a little bit more struggle on a car-to-car basis than everyone, and it took me a really long time to say that. … With stock cars, the closing rates aren’t quite as quick, so I think it showed up more over time in stock cars just because you can be more defensive than in an IndyCar.”

What it means: The Great Star Power Drain continues in NASCAR. Whether or not you thought Patrick was worthy of an elite Cup Series ride for five full seasons despite not producing results on the track, you can’t argue with the name recognition she brought to NASCAR. There are people in this country who can only name one NASCAR driver — and it’s her. Though her celebrity and fame didn’t save NASCAR from its decline or turn the sport around, Patrick absolutely brought new eyes to the sport and created new fans — many of them young females — by giving people someone different to root for. Her loss, particularly combined with the departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., is a big blow to NASCAR when it comes to coverage in the general sports world.

News value (scale of 1 to 10): 10. This is a mega celebrity retiring from NASCAR when some people were hopeful she could somehow remain in the sport and find another team despite her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing going to Aric Almirola.

Three questions: What team will Patrick run the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 with? Can she jump back into an IndyCar and be competitive again? In a decade from now, what will Patrick’s NASCAR legacy be?

Post-Indy 500 and Coke 600 podcast with nascarcasm

After a long day of racing, Internet troll @nascarcasm joins me to break down all things Indy 500 and Coke 600. We discuss the love for Fernando Alonso, Scott Dixon’s scary wreck, Austin Dillon’s first win and grilled onions. Plus, @nascarcasm’s musical debut.

Fernando Alonso wins American hearts, but not the Indy 500

Fernando Alonso came to Indianapolis with a nearly impossible task: To not only perform well enough to justify skipping the biggest race of the Formula One season, but to serve as an ambassador in the process.

Politicians have cracked under much less of a spotlight. Everyone wanted a piece of Alonso during his stay, and he had to divide his time between his team, a load of media commitments and endless fan requests — all while figuring out how to race on an oval for the first time.

And yet Alonso truly represented himself better than anyone could have hoped; despite the 24th-place finish after a blown engine, the journey to Indianapolis was a success on all fronts.

He raced and conducted himself like a champion in so many ways. Even though his success might made the Indy 500 look easier than it is, being able to adapt so quickly surely had to raise his reputation as an all-around great racer.

But Alonso is a great professional off the track as well.

Take Sunday, for example. He was faced with a major disappointment after leading 27 laps and having a chance to win the race, only to have his engine expire with 20 laps to go.

Had Alonso called it a day without talking to the media and just left the track to beat the traffic, few could have really blamed him. But he did the opposite.

He changed into street clothes and did a TV interview, then watched the end of the race (Alonso said he was “on my knees” rooting for teammate Takuma Sato). After that, he came to the media center to face a large group of reporters.

Alonso was not under obligation to come, but he realized what a story he was — this race will be remembered more for his presence than Sato’s win — so he agreed to the interview.

But by Sunday, it was no surprise he would accommodate such a request. That’s because he went along with everything IndyCar and the track asked him to do, never complaining or saying it was too much.

He probably said “sure” a thousand times, whether it was for a media hit or a selfie with a fan while in transit. And he exhibited good nature throughout, never looking bored (even during the public drivers meeting) or acting like he was too good for something (like the hour-long public autograph session the day before the race).

That’s very impressive for a two-time Formula One world champion who — let’s face it — could have been a jerk to everyone and still been just as much of a story. It’s not like reporters could say, “Screw this guy, we aren’t giving him coverage.” This Indy 500 was all Alonso.

On Thursday, he was surrounded by a five-deep group of reporters for a solid hour during Indy 500 media day. After awhile, that kind of environment would get claustrophobic or irritating for even the best of us.

But Alonso answered all the questions — even if the question was a repeat — and was cool throughout the process. The time he gave was impressive for someone of his stature (and was a lot more of a commitment than the weekly F1 press conferences).

And despite hogging the attention leading into the race, Alonso charmed the heck out of everyone — fellow drivers and Indiana fans included — and left everyone wanting more. Fans greeted him with loud cheers before the race and a standing ovation after it.

“Thanks to IndyCar — amazing experience,” Alonso said. “Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”

Alonso could have come to Indy and been selfish about the opportunity. But he wasn’t. He gave as much as he received. He showed respect to everyone and acted with class throughout the process.

At the end of Sunday’s post-race media session, the moderator dismissed Alonso. He was free to go.

“Last thing,” Alonso said.

He pulled out a small carton of milk and raised it as a toast.

“Thank you to all the media,” he said. “I didn’t win, but I will drink a little bit of milk. You followed me for two weeks — every single minute — but I really enjoyed (it).

“Thanks for the welcoming.”

We can only hope he decides to come back soon.

Scott Dixon still the Iceman after insane Indy 500 crash

The applause broke out almost immediately after Scott Dixon and Jay Howard’s cars slid to a stop, even before broadcasters were able to tell viewers both drivers were OK.

Fans in the stands at Indianapolis Motor Speedway saw Dixon moving inside his destroyed race car and realized that — despite contact with Howard, an unscheduled flight for Dixon and a bad-angle landing that could have killed him — the “Iceman” was alive.

And not only alive, but well.

Of course he was, right? He’s Scott Dixon, the man who can go to the local Taco Bell, get robbed with a gun to his head and basically shrug it off.

Dixon emerged virtually uninjured, save for a bum ankle that he said “was a little beaten up.” Even it’s broken, that would still be a near-miracle outcome from a crash that was one of the most frightening wrecks in years.

One reporter asked Dixon if he’d ever been in a scarier wreck than that one. His response: Meh.

“They’re kind of all similar,” he replied. “You’re just riding along and waiting for the big impact. And there were a couple (of big impacts) in that one. So probably more than normal.

“But as we’ve seen, especially throughout my racing career, the safety adjustments and all they’ve done — it’s a testament to the safety that we have.”

Not everyone was as cool about it as Dixon.

Friends Dario Franchitti — whose career was ended by an airborne crash — and Sebastien Bourdais — on crutches after breaking his hip last week in a wreck here — quickly arrived at the infield medical center as reporters waited outside.

Dixon’s wife, Emma, was on the scene as well — and even spoke to the media about her emotions.

Emma had gone back to the couple’s motorhome to use the bathroom and flipped on the TV right at the moment of the crash. She told reporters everything was “moving really slowly in that moment for me,” but was massively relieved to see the safety team’s rapid response and the good news for her husband shortly thereafter.

It’s been an eventful week for the couple — from Dixon’s pole position to the Taco Bell robbery to this.

“It’s insane,” she said. “It’s just been amazing highs and amazing lows. I just thank God he’s OK and I’m just so happy he’s OK.”

Meanwhile, her husband made his way down the long line of waiting media. Dixon calmly relayed what happened in the crash and seemed just fine with repeating himself again and again, continually popping a smile.

And why not? Dixon may not have won the Indy 500 on Sunday, but he walked away with breath still in his body.

After his horrifying crash, that seems like a victory in itself.

Indy 500 Impressions: Race Day

My typical beat is NASCAR, but this week I’m at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to experience the Indy 500. I’ll be posting daily updates from the track. Today: A timeline of Indianapolis 500 race day.

4:50 a.m.

I’m absolutely wide awake and wired — and I haven’t even had any coffee yet. I’m already at the track, and I feel like bouncing off the walls of the media center.

I woke up at 3 a.m. — 30 minutes before my alarm — and decided I might as well get ready and hit the road. I’ve never been to an event where 300,000 people are expected, so I figured it would be best to beat the traffic if possible, and I could always sleep in the car if necessary.

But when I pulled into the muddy parking lot at 4:10, I was too pumped to think about sleeping. My adrenaline is already turned up, and I’m ready for the world’s greatest automobile race.

I walked into the track (the media gate was already open, although the public gate doesn’t open until the 6 a.m. cannon boom) and was greeted with blanket of silence. The pagoda lit the night like a lantern, and all was quiet except for the sound of golf carts driving around with workers preparing TV live shots and equipment for the day.

It’s a thrill to be here.

7:05 a.m.

The cannon sounded an hour ago, and a flood of people immediately started streaming through the gates. The place is already buzzing — and whistling, thanks to the yellow shirts — and everyone seems to be in a good mood. Some are in a better mood than others, perhaps thanks to some early-morning drinking.

There’s something about the atmosphere, even just after dawn, that seems important. I ran into a couple of race fans from Sacramento who are attending their first Indy 500, and they said, “It feels like an event.” That’s a good way to put it.

It’s fun to think about how this same race day rhythm has been happening here for decades, down to the minute. Tradition is such a major part of the draw here, because Hoosiers have grown up experiencing the same pattern, year after year. Life may change, but the 500 doesn’t.

My Indiana-born wife, Sarah, has only missed one Indy 500 in her life — but she’s missed several Thanksgivings and Christmases at home. The one year she skipped it, she was in tears — longing to be with her family and filled with regret. The whole “Back Home Again” thing is more than a song to people here.

The funny thing is, I don’t think Sarah cares about the race itself anymore (she goes to the Snake Pit with her brother these days), but the tradition of attending is part of her heritage. Her grandparents and extended family all come to the race as well.

It must be so cool for lifelong attendees of this race to be greeted by the wave of memories when walking through the tunnel. Children who once held their parents’ hands here have grown up and now bring kids of their own, toting their little backpacks while the adults drag the coolers.

10:35 a.m.

Damn, Indy 500 race day is absolutely lit!

I went to check out the legendary Snake Pit, which I’ve heard so much about. There were expected to be nearly 30,000 people in attendance there today (it’s an add-on from the general admission race ticket), which is impressive considering it’s basically a separate event.

Adventure Club was playing, and they put on a good show (I saw them at Electric Daisy Carnival last year). Sure enough, even though it was only 9 a.m., the Snake Pit crowd was already going off.

The Snake Pit is allllll young people. Probably 99% of the crowd is under 25 years old. There’s a very high-tech, festival-worthy stage capable of spewing smoke and fire, and the bass is so loud, you honestly would have no idea you’re at a racetrack (a hill on the backside makes it a semi-enclosed venue).

It’s hard to believe two of the world’s top DJs, Zedd and Marshmello, will be performing there in a few hours. They constantly travel all over the world for concerts and here they are at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Speaking of Marshmello, I got a text from SportsBusiness Journal’s Adam Stern saying ‘Mello was in the media center. So I rushed back from the Snake Pit, looked through the media center and couldn’t find him. Damn.

But he had to be somewhere, so I started looking on pit road. Sure enough, Marshmello was walking around with his team. Mellogang from all over, including IMS President Doug Boles, greeted Marshmello and posed for pictures. Few things make me happier than seeing two of my passions — EDM and racing — colliding.

Anyway, just over an hour until the green flag.

12:40 p.m.

The start of the Indy 500 was probably the most exciting sports moment I’ve experienced since being at the Belmont Stakes for the Triple Crown win in 2015.

We all see the pageantry of the 500 every year, and it’s everything you’d expect and more to feel it in person. The call of “Drivers, to your cars,” the playing of taps, “Back Home Again” and the balloon launch, the starting of engines and the parade laps — the excitement just builds and builds.

I’m pretty sure everyone had full-body chills at various points during the pre-race ceremonies. By the time drivers actually took the green flag, the energy built to a fever pitch and people just let out this huge “YEAHHHHH” at the start of the race.

It’s pretty badass.

5:57 p.m.

Well, I’m sad this day has come to an end. This was one of the more fun experiences I’ve had in awhile, and I can see why people come back year after year. It was an honor to be in attendance.

First of all, the race itself seemed to have everything: Lead changes (35!), different leaders (a race-record 15, nearly half the field) and lots of passes (871). There were aggressive moves, crazy restarts and enough crashes to prove how much the drivers were pushing the limits.

Second, the atmosphere was just so, so cool. It’s always special to feel like part of something big — and that’s definitely the case at Indy based on attendance alone (let alone the significance of the race). And the track itself does a great job with this event; despite the complaints about the yellow shirts, they keep things running smoothly.

Third, I enjoyed experiencing a different form of racing. There are some similarities between NASCAR and IndyCar, sure — but there are a lot of things each could learn from the other. I’d like to see both sanctioning bodies work together more to lift up all forms of motorsports in the United States. Fans don’t have to choose just one.

I know dollars are scarcer these days and overall interest might be down, but that’s exactly why generating more enthusiasm for racing in general is a good thing. Whether it’s NASCAR or IndyCar, help more fans get to know and love racing; then everyone wins.

Indy 500 Impressions: Saturday

My typical beat is NASCAR, but this week I’m at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to experience the Indy 500. I’ll be posting daily updates on some differences I see between NASCAR and IndyCar.

For someone used to NASCAR race weekends where there’s always something on the track, the Indianapolis 500 schedule is a bit odd.

Saturday — the day before the biggest race in the world! — was dark as far as on-track activity. Many of the media didn’t even bother showing up because there was nothing to “cover” and no one to interview.

Now, there were definitely things for the public to do. It started with a one-hour autograph session in the morning — which the full field participated in! Can you believe that? Even Fernando Alonso sat outside and signed autographs for an hour. That was sort of mind-blowing to me, but it’s just part of the tradition here.

What else is part of the tradition? A public drivers meeting that is largely for ceremonial purposes. The drivers already had their actual closed-door drivers meeting on Friday morning — so this was mostly to hand out awards (like a trophy for Alexander Rossi’s win last year) and rings given to all 33 starters in this year’s field.

I’d say roughly 5,000 people attended the drivers meeting. It wasn’t very exciting, but it was a chance for fans to see the drivers and feel part of the experience. IndyCar went over some of the rules and regulations for the race — so there was a competition element — but I’m pretty sure the drivers already heard those same instructions on Friday.

After that, the drivers boarded buses for the annual 500 Festival parade downtown, which is a popular tradition in the city. Some people never miss that parade, just like they never miss the 500 itself.

Then it got sort of quiet at the track. There was a run-through of the pre-race festivities (an opera singer is rehearsing “God Bless America” as I write this). And there’s a Keith Urban concert scheduled for tonight in the infield (it’s a $40 ticket on top of the $10 Saturday ticket), but that’s pretty much it aside from walking through the garages (they’re open to the public today) and a memorabilia show.

Personally, this feels weird. I’d be more comfortable running around getting interviews today in advance of the massive race tomorrow; instead, it’s almost like a day off.

One person who has been around Indy for awhile told me Saturday is sort of like a hangover day. People party so hard on Carb Day, they need that extra day in between Friday and the race anyway.

So I guess it’s a day of rest in many aspects, which is fine. After all, tomorrow is the greatest day in racing, and everyone will need plenty of energy for that.

—-

Other Indy Impressions:

Friday (Carb Day)

Thursday (Media Day)

 

Indy 500 Impressions: Thursday

My typical beat is NASCAR, but this week I’m at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to experience the Indy 500. I’ll be posting daily updates on some differences I see between NASCAR and IndyCar.

Today was Indianapolis 500 Media Day, and they have a very different format here than we get in NASCAR.

This isn’t to judge NASCAR or throw shade on NASCAR drivers — because let’s face it, NASCAR in general is bigger than IndyCar — but there was a lot to like about how Indy did things from a media perspective.

First, some background: NASCAR currently has four main “media days” per year — the preseason Media Tour, Daytona 500 Media Day, Playoff Media Day and Championship Media Day (for Homestead). What typically happens is NASCAR rotates the drivers through booths (two at a time, for example) and they’re available for 10 minutes — maybe 15 in some cases. The NASCAR media corps has occasionally gotten upset at the lack of time we get with drivers on these days.

But at Indy 500 media day, the entire field was available for ONE HOUR. The session was split into two groups, but every driver had to sit there and answer questions for a solid 60 minutes — even Fernando Alonso, who was surrounded by a huge group the whole time.

This sort of blew me away, because I don’t think NASCAR drivers would ever stand for that. They would raise hell if NASCAR tried to make them sit there for an hour. In general, NASCAR guys want to do their 10-15 minute obligation and are looking to bolt.

Honestly, the drivers council would probably get involved if NASCAR said, “You will do an hour of print/TV media today.” The IndyCar drivers didn’t seem too bothered by it, though — I assume because they’re used to it? Also, they realize this is the best time to promote themselves and their sport, so I suppose they just embrace it.

Another thing that caught my eye today was the hospitality tents. I’ve covered some IndyCar events before, so I remembered these hospitality tents existed, but I forgot the details of them. Team Penske had a media luncheon at its big hospitality tent, where all the drivers were present as well as Roger Penske. It had to be quite expensive, because the food was quite good (and the media loves food!).

I bring this up because that sort of event typically would not happen at a NASCAR race. For one thing, these mobile hospitality centers more of an open-wheel thing for whatever reason. And second, I’d argue the drivers’ extra time in NASCAR is typically spent fulfilling sponsor obligations, not hanging with the media at a luncheon.

Again, I’m not passing judgment (for anyone who wants to get defensive in NASCAR), I’m just making observations.

One last thought for today: Wow, who are all these media people? I feel like after covering NASCAR for more than a decade, I have a pretty good idea of who the American racing journalists are. But I didn’t recognize maybe 80% of the media today. Some of them are foreign (the guy sitting next to me is from France), but not everyone. It’s just kind of crazy how the media corps in the two major forms of motorsports in the United States could have so many different people without that much crossover.