At this time ten years ago, NASCAR was still a sport on the rise. Over the first part of the last decade, stock car racing grew in popularity to the point where it could reasonably claim a spot alongside North America's "Big Four" professional sports of football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
Things haven't gone quite as smoothly since then, as ratings and attendance for NASCAR races have slipped a bit during the last few years. Not surprisingly, interest in racing cards and collectibles has cooled as well.
But a rebound may be in store all the way around in 2010. Rumors are swirling that the NASCAR head honchos are preparing to unveil changes designed to woo back some old fans. And a brand new face is poised to create new fans and collectors.
That face belongs to Danica Patrick, who is taking the first steps of her stock car career this season as a part time driver for a Nationwide Series team co-owned by two of the sport's biggest names, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick. She'll officially hit the track for the first time on the first weekend of February, competing in the ARCA race at Daytona.
Press Pass, the lone manufacturer of NASCAR racing cards, has announced that she'll make her debut on cardboard even sooner than that. Patrick will have her first official rookie card and an insert card in 2010 Element Racing, due to go on sale on January 20.
Patrick isn't the first female driver to try her hand at big time stock cars, but she's undoubtedly the one with the most name recognition. Part of that is due to some decent success in open wheel racing, where she proved competitive as an IndyCar racer and even managed to win a race.
Her good looks obviously don't hurt either, and it would be silly to suggest otherwise. Patrick has been seen wearing a lot less than a firesuit in the pages of Sports Illustrated and other magazines as well as in racy adds for GoDaddy.com, the company that will be sponsoring her No. 7 Chevrolet for her Nationwide Series campaign.
Though Press Pass has benefited by being the only game in town for NASCAR card collectors for some time, it's pretty much been limited to the overall popularity of racing and its own creativity to drive its products. Patrick gives the company a chance to attract some people who wouldn't otherwise think about checking out racing cards, and it's a pretty safe bet her first cards will be in high demand.
Press Pass will try to keep that interest high by releasing race-used memorabilia cards and on-card autographs for Patrick later in the 2010 season. After that, it will be up to her to prove she can handle the big cars - some experts think it will be her diminutive stature rather than a lack of talent that could prove her undoing - and run with the big boys.
Time will tell if Patrick proves up to the challenge. Until then, racing collectors will get extra shots of curiosity and sex appeal to go with their normal blend of horsepower and burning rubber.