Danica vs Kournikova

Danica can't head down Anna Kournikova road

Danica Patrick, the 23-year-old rookie driver, has sparked interest in the IRL, which has lagged for the past decade as a poor stepchild to NASCAR. But if Patrick doesn't start to win some races soon, public interest in the IRL will likely fizzle as quickly as it exploded, experts say.

Danicamania reached a fever pitch as she placed fourth in the Indianapolis 500 May 29, after leading with seven laps to go. The race brought ABC a 6.6 TV rating, up 40 percent from last year and the highest-rated Indy 500 since 1996. ESPN, which splits coverage of IRL races with ABC, had its two highest-rated IRL broadcasts in races Patrick was part of after Indy.

While IRL tracks don't release attendance figures media estimates peg crowds at up to 30 percent above last year's levels at races this year.

All of these gains are thanks to Danica, experts agree. "I don't think you can point to anything else that's spiked ratings," says Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports & Celebrities in Evanston, Ill., a sports marketing firm.

And it's the All-American good looks of the 5-foot-2, 100-pound Patrick that have brought much of the attention. The Roscoe, Ill. native showed off most of her body in an FHM photo spread. Web sites featuring the provocative FHM pictures of Patrick on the hood of a car received so many hits from viewers during the week of the Indy 500 that several of the sites crashed.

"Clearly we live in an age where looks create interest, and she certainly has been able to take advantage of that," says Paul Swangard, director of the University of Oregon's sports marketing center.

Already Patrick has alienated some of her fellow drivers with the outsized attention she has drawn without winning a race. Four racers, including Indy 500 champ Dan Wheldon, refused to participate in an autograph session this summer in Milwaukee after IRL set up a separate signing area for Patrick.

"You look at someone like Wheldon, he's having a great year, but USA Today ran a story a few weeks ago about who is this guy?" said Mark Howell, author of numerous books and articles about auto racing and a professor of communications at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.

If Patrick doesn't win any races soon, it won't just be a matter of bruised egos for her competitors. It will also lead IRL's new fans to abandon the racing series, experts say.

"She's in danger of the Anna Kournikova syndrome," Howell says of Patrick. Kournikova, who is now retired from competitive tennis, built up an impressive endorsement portfolio and fan base thanks to her good looks, but never won a pro tournament.

Patrick hasn't bettered her fourth-place showing at Indianapolis in any of the 15 other IRL races she's driven this year. She finished 16th in her most recent start at Watkins Glen last month. Her last race win came in 2002 on a lower circuit.

"If Danica doesn't win soon, all this buzz will go away," Howell says. "If she stays an also ran, it won't do her or her sport any good."

But a few wins by Patrick, and IRL's popularity could explode. "If she had won Indy this year, the world would have tipped off its axis," Howell says.

If Patrick does start taking home some trophies, her effect on auto racing could be similar to what Tiger Woods has done for golf, according to Williams of Burns Sports & Celebrities. "If she wins consistently, over the long term, the sport could have people watching who never would have before — particularly mothers and daughters."

Source: Dan Weil can be reached at his e-mail address: dancweil@aol.com or the story at msn.foxsports.com/other/story/4934706

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