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‘Daytona’ replaces ‘Indy’ on public’s radar

Published February 27, 2013

In a column in the Toronto Star last Saturday, in which she made fun of the Oscars and the Hollywood movie stars up for the awards, Heather Mallick wrote this sentence:

“What you are watching is the Daytona 500 of status anxiety.”

I work in the same office, so asked her why she had selected “Daytona 500″ over, say, the “Indianapolis 500.”

Was it because Daytona was on the same day this year as the Academy Awards?

No.

And her explanation shocked me.

“I was searching for imagery and ‘Daytona 500′ was the first thing that popped into my head,” she said. “Nothing more.”

I told her that most people who are not fans of auto racing would have been prone to say “Indianapolis 500,” or “Indy 500.”

Prepare to be shocked even more.

“I never would have thought of Indianapolis,” she said. “I only thought of the Daytona 500.”

So, there you have it.

The Daytona 500 is now ingrained in the public consciousness much like the Indy 500 used to be.

When the Heather Mallicks of the world think of “Daytona” before “Indianapolis,” the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its marquee event are in more trouble than anybody ever realized.

I interpret this as yet another nail in the coffin of a once-iconic car race and a once-iconic form of racing.

Most of the drivers in IndyCar, or many of them anyway, were so jealous of Danica Patrick’s popularity and the fact that she was constantly being promoted that they bitched and complained about it behind her back. As a result, IndyCar went to great lengths to keep the boys happy by de-emphasizing her celebrity.

NASCAR drivers had no such qualms. They welcomed her with open arms. Millionaires already, they saw her as a way for all of them to become billionaires.

“Her presence will help our sport grow,” said Jimmie Johnson, even before he won last Sunday’s Daytona 500.

And how right he was.

FOX television released the ratings story Tuesday of Sunday’s classic and it was all anybody’d hoped for: the rating was up 24 per cent over 2012 and the number of viewers increased 22 per cent. Overall, it was the biggest audience since 2008. An estimated 31 million watched at least some of the race and it was the best-ever year-to-year rise.

Guess who’s responsible?

When Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in 2001, there were three reactions.

First, everybody was very shocked and very sad. Second, it did wonders for NASCAR because TV ratings and attendance at races had both been declining and they bounced right back up as the result of his death. (So, in that way, it was good for business.) Third, NASCAR heard loud and clear from sponsors that they didn’t want to be part of a sport in which people were killed and to do something about it. (So, in that way, it was bad for business.)

As a result of (3), NASCAR very quietly started to design a “safe” racing stock car and five years later, in 2006, the Car of Tomorrow was introduced to the media.

I suggest today that NASCAR, perhaps even in company with the IndyCar Series, is very quietly starting the research and development of something to replace the catch fencing that currently keeps out-of-control racing cars from flying into grandstands and killing substantial numbers of people.

NASCAR, and all of auto racing, dodged a huge bullet last Saturday at Daytona when 28 spectators were injured, two critically, when pieces of a car and at least one wheel went through the fence.

That nobody was killed is a miracle.

Although everybody – NASCAR people, Daytona Speedway people – have kept a stiff upper lip about the whole business in public, you can bet that behind the scenes they’ve been sweating bullets.

President Mike Helton appeared on television about a half-hour after the crash and he was a very shaken-up senior executive of NASCAR.

I suggest within three years that a fail-safe barrier will be developed and available for installation at speedways. Whether the tracks will want to spend the money to put it up will be another question, but it will be ready.

Meantime, everybody had better keep their fingers crossed that nothing calamitous happens before that barrier is patented.

Sportsnet announced yesterday that it would televise the IZOD IndyCar Series races this year, would start the season at St. Petersburg on March 24, that Rob Faulds would anchor the broadcasts with Todd Lewis in the pits and Bill Adam and Paul Tracy doing colour for pre-race, in-race and post-race coverage of the Indy 500 and the Honda Indy Toronto and . . .

But we knew all that, didn’t we . . . ?

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