By Rick Barrack:
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve been going to the Indianapolis 500 since I was in diapers; my parents first brought me to the event when I was just a year old, and I’ve been attending every Memorial Day weekend since. As a kid I had little appreciation for the event, but over the years my passion for Indy has become near-obsessive, and I anticipate the race–which takes place this Sunday–as some do the Super Bowl, the Oscars, or even their own wedding (sorry, honey).
For me, motorsports are always interesting, but for the past few years they have been even more so, largely thanks to Danica Patrick. Danica is not the first female racecar driver, but she stole headlines by being the first woman to win an IndyCar race (the Indy Japan 300, in 2008) and a massive number of fans started watching IndyCar racing due to her high-profile presence. (In 2009, the Indianapolis 500 attracted 16 million viewers, despite rainfall, and this year viewership will undoubtedly be even greater.)
Thanks to her, and to other female drivers including Sarah Fisher, Ana Beatriz, and Simona De Silvestro (all of whom will be starting with her at Indy this Sunday), this once male-dominated sport is now incredibly popular with women–and its star is only on the rise. NASCAR reports that 40% of its 75 million fans are women, for whom NASCAR is the second-most-watched television sport after football (according to Fox Sports Network). And here’s the most striking statistic of all, at least for advertisers: women NASCAR aficionados are three times as likely to purchase NASCAR-sponsored products as non-fans. Yup … three times.
So why the attraction? Beth Coode, a 33-year-old junior high school history teacher who lives in Nashville and has been following car racing for 10 years, says, “It’s clean and the family can watch it. There’s a camaraderie with the [drivers] and their families.” Robin Braig, the president of Daytona International Speedway, refers to it as the “Danica-effect.” Janet Guthrie–who was, in 1977, the first female to compete in the Indianapolis 500–said regarding racing’s popularity, “I thought it would take two generations, and it only seems to have taken one.” Lyn St. James, who was one of the sport’s pioneers and had 15 IndyCar starts in the 1980s, is now an advocate for training women to be top-notch contenders, and has served as a mentor to many of the up-and-coming drivers, Patrick included.
If you ask me, this sudden popularity presents an incredible opportunity for more female- and family friendly sponsors to get involved in motorsports. While Danica’s current sponsors–Peak Antifreeze, GoDaddy, and MarquisJet–err on the male side, a brand like Target–an Indy sponsor, as well as QuickTrim–clearly speaks to women. AllState Insurance was one of the first advertisers to speak to NASCAR’s female fan-base through a series of popular TV spots, started in 2005, that feature “AllState Girls.” One of last year’s sponsors was a company called Her Energy (replete with a pink logo), and Cottonelle is on board for yet another year.
So on Sunday, while all eyes will be glued to Danica, Ana, Simona, and Sarah, my eyes will inevitably gravitate to the logos on their racing suits, to see which brands have the forethought to align themselves with these amazing women at this exciting moment in motorsports history. That’s one race that might just interest me as much as the Indianapolis 500 race itself.