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Danica Patrick revved up for Honda Indy Toronto

At a dinner with journalists on Thursday night, Canadian driver Paul Tracy was given an opportunity to turn the tables and ask a question to the reporters.

He stood up, smiled from ear-to-ear, and said with a laugh: "What do you guys think Danica is going to do?"

Danica is, of course, Danica Patrick, the most valuable asset in the IndyCar Series and the personality who almost singlehandedly kept open-wheel racing going in North America in the face of the stock car juggernaut, NASCAR, the series she's likely to join next year.

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The raven-haired 29-year-old, who had no trouble capitalizing on her sex appeal, became an instant sensation when she arrived in IndyCar seven years ago, spawning a media frenzy dubbed "Danicamania."

Patrick flourished in the spotlight, with appearances in the pages of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition only heightening her popularity. On track she's been less successful, winning only once in 107 starts over seven seasons in IndyCar, something that simply didn't matter to her throngs of fans.

Although Patrick has not made an official announcement, most paddock insiders feel the decision to head to NASCAR in 2012 is already made.

Faced with the loss its most marketable property, you'd think IndyCar would be reeling. Instead, there's an almost eerie calmness.

Racing 11 The calmness comes from series boss Randy Bernard when he talks about the loss of a key asset.

"You hate to see any great ambassador leave because it's no different than any other major-league sport that loses a top athlete, but I am more worried about what [Patrick's main sponsor] does," he said.

"I think Danica is who she is because of the millions of dollars that GoDaddy has put into her brand and her ability to drive their business. Something that's really important to me is making sure we can keep GoDaddy here."

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Last year, the Roscoe, Ill., native began driving part-time in NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series with the support of GoDaddy, which is thought to be pouring as much as $50-million (all currency U.S.) annually into her racing career.

While she struggled with the stock cars in 2010, Patrick seems more comfortable in NASCAR this year. It is thought she will make an appearance in NASCAR's top flight Sprint Cup series in the not-too-distant future.

After she goes, don't expect IndyCar to hang its head and pine for the good old days when Patrick ruled the airwaves and glossy pages and took the open-wheel series along for the ride.

"I think what our sport has to be about is the best drivers in the world," Bernard said.

"We have work to do, but I think it takes a co-ordinated effort from the sponsors and the series - that's what you've seen with Danica with all the ads during the Super Bowl with her in them."

And while watching your biggest star take her driving gloves to a rival series isn't the best news, some insiders feel that Patrick's influence had waned in the past few years - partly because of her inability to find success in track - and her shelf life as the series' top draw was coming to an end anyway.

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Plus, many in the paddock feel that next year is a good time for it to happen since the 2012 IndyCar season sees the re-introduction of engine competition with three manufacturers joining the fray to supply motors for a newly developed car that also makes its debut next year.

"There are things on the horizon next year in terms of equipment and manufacturer competition which will offset a significant part of what she would have generated for the series and keep some interest," said T.E. McHale, Honda Motorsport manager of public relations.

"I am not sure it serves the series well to have all its public-relations eggs in one driver basket. I believe it serves the series well to cultivate star potential amongst a broad spectrum of drivers and they've got marketable people."

When Patrick exits the open-wheel stage, IndyCar sophomore Simona De Silvestro, who races from the HVM team, will likely be the top female racer left in the series. The young Swiss driver insists she hasn't been asked to try to replace Patrick's sex appeal.

"I don't feel any pressure," she said. "I look at myself as a race car driver and I am just trying to be the best out there if she's here or not."

In a perfect world, Bernard suggested that IndyCar would have a half dozen drivers who hold star status, rather than one bright light who outshines the rest. The plan includes attracting the kind of mainstream publicity generated when three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves of Brazil was a winner on TV's Dancing With the Stars a few of years ago.

And while Patrick's loss will be felt no matter how optimistically the series portrays it, her departure certainly doesn't mean the remaining drivers - even the hungry, young up-and-coming stars - will do anything to promote the series.

"I am not going to pose in a bikini in Sports Illustrated," said IndyCar rookie James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., who drives for Newman/Haas.

"I'm not a very good dancer or singer, but I would go on Survivor to get some attention for the IndyCar Series. I might have a shot at winning: I watch the show quite a bit, so I know all the different strategies."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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