A burgeoning sex symbol led the Indianapolis 500 with six laps to go, and for the first time in a long time, the Indy Racing League was accelerating in the television ratings.
Danica Patrick's fourth-place run in Sunday's race earned a 6.6 overnight rating, the highest the race has drawn since 1996. She helped the venerable event score a higher rating than NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 for the first time in four years.
ABC Sports, which broadcast the Indy 500, was "thrilled" with the rating, said spokesman Mark Mandel. He predicted that Patrick, whose Indy finish was the best ever by a woman, would help keep IRL ratings higher than in recent years.
"I don't want to put it all on Danica, but she is still getting enormous publicity, and I think there will be more interest as we go on," he said.
Despite Patrick's star power, sports marketing experts say Indy racing - long hampered by internal conflicts - is far from regaining its former glory or challenging NASCAR for pre-eminence in American racing.
"That 6.6 is a good number for Indy, and it speaks to the fact that something newsworthy can bring the casual fan back," said Jason Maltby, executive director of national broadcast at Mindshare USA, a New York marketing company. "But to maintain that kind of interest, they're going to have to come up with some other story lines."
Maltby said Patrick is a fascinating and appealing figure, but he can't imagine her having the national impact Tiger Woods had on golf. "And I don't think it has anything to do with her," he said. "It has to do with the base level of interest in IRL. It's pretty much the Indy 500, and then what else is there?"
Patrick is no sure thing, either, said Ryan Schinman, president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, a New York-based company that matches celebrities with companies for advertising purposes.
"We don't know how long she'll be successful," Schinman said. "She might be a flash in the pan. She needs to continue finishing strongly."
Despite such reservations, Schinman predicted a few companies will sign deals with Patrick in the next few weeks. If she continues to drive well, he said, she could become a major star and help the IRL reverse the sharp declines it has experienced in the past 10 years.
"In sports like these, it only takes one or two stars," Schinman said.
Patrick will need to win to become that kind of star, said Nova Lanktree, executive vice president of player marketing for Chicago-based CSMG Sports.
"This was probably a real exciting segment but not necessarily a career-defining moment for her," Lanktree said. "Maybe if she had won it would be different. Winning is real important."
Indy drivers were once the gods of American tracks with Andretti, Unser and Foyt among the most common names in the nation's sporting parlance in the 1970s and 1980s. For decades, the Indianapolis 500 went unchallenged as the biggest race around in terms of television audience and media attention.
But the news has rarely been good since the 1995 schism that divided open-wheel racers into the Indy Racing League and what is now called the Champ Car World Series. The split robbed the Indianapolis 500 of some of its most talented drivers and left casual fans confused.
NASCAR filled the vacuum, snatching up mega-talented drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman and plastering their faces on television, billboards and scores of consumer products. Long regarded as Indy's poorer, scruffier cousin, NASCAR now draws higher television ratings than any other sports league except the NFL.
It drew seven times as many live spectators as the IRL last year, and every year from 2002 to 2004, the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., drew higher television ratings than the Indianapolis 500, held on the same day. On most weekends, IRL races draw lower ratings than NASCAR's second-tier Busch and Craftsman Truck series.
The advantage has swung so decisively that few marketing experts consider the two forms of racing to be true competitors.
"You look at any NASCAR driver or car, and you can see how successful they've been from a marketing standpoint," Maltby said. "Every inch is taken."
Officials at ABC Sports and Fox Sports, which broadcasts NASCAR, downplayed any competition.
"We produced the best overnight rating ever for our race, and we're happy with that," said Fox Sports spokesman Tim Buckman, referring to the 5.1 for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. Buckman added that NASCAR's showcase race, the Daytona 500, drew a 10.7 overnight rating in February.
ABC's Mandel said beating NASCAR is not the goal.
"NASCAR is another form of auto racing, but that doesn't mean it's the competition," he said. "We want to be the strongest program that's on at a given time. That's really the only measure we care about."
But the IRL is seeking attention from the 18- to 34-year-old males who flock to NASCAR. A new marketing campaign called "Adrenaline. Amplified" targets that demographic, and one of the campaign's ads shows Patrick dressed in sleek, black leather under the slogan "We heard you like to watch."
The petite driver from small-town Illinois has also posed in the men's magazine FHM and been featured in mainstream venues such as People magazine and Good Morning America.
IRL officials said they don't plan to feature Patrick any more heavily after her performance Sunday but said her prominence will help their sport.
"We believe Danica attracted new viewers to Sunday's broadcast, and once they got there, they saw one of the most exciting races in Indy history," said Ken Ungar, vice president of business affairs for the IRL. "Now, we believe they'll come back for more."
Patrick will next race June 11 at Texas Motor Speedway. Marketing experts say ratings at that event and those that follow in Richmond, Va., Kansas City, Kan., and Nashville, Tenn., could measure her true star power.
"She's a great story right now," Schinman said. "But when the next great thing comes along in a month, where is she?"