She was featured on 12 magazine covers in 2005 and was the first Indy Racing League driver to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in 20 years. Racer magazine chose her the second-most influential driver in motor sports and she was named IRL’s rookie of the year.
Large groups of fans hover around the track seeking autographs while ignoring other recognizable drivers. She often fields more questions from the media than the winners of the races in which she participates.
Danica Patrick still hasn’t won in the IRL, but like it or not, the 5-foot-1 featherweight of a woman is the sport’s heavyweight when it comes to generating publicity.
General sports fans might not even know the Indy 500 is this weekend, but chances are, the same fans probably know who Patrick is.
Patrick finished fourth in last year’s Indy 500, the highest placing of any female in race history. TV ratings for the event were up 40 percent over previous years. She will start 10th in Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Once again, even though she hasn’t shown the same speed in practice runs this year that she did last season, Patrick is still the most popular racer for fans and media at IRL’s biggest event of the year.
“She has had a major impact on the series,” said Jeff Olson, the IRL beat writer for Racer magazine since 1992. “This series has struggled to gain attention for such a long time. We can gauge a lot on reader reaction, and she is drawing a lot of mainstream fans into the sport.”
The IRL requires every driver to make three advance appearances a year before certain races. But clearly Patrick, coming off five straight days of interviews in New York and Washington D.C. in conjunction with the release of her autobiography, is still the top choice. Got an Indy champ coming into town? Great, the league might get a sound bite. If it’s Patrick, then maybe a quick snippet turns into a special or feature on the front page of the sports section.
“You can’t go into Washington D.C. and fill up a day with many of our drivers; we just aren’t that deep,” said John Griffin, the IRL’s vice president of public relations. “With Danica, it fills up pretty quickly. What a lot don’t realize is, with Danica, the calls come into us, we don’t call people, and you have to catch something like that and use it while you can.”
Patrick isn’t the first woman to race against men – there were three others before her on the Indy circuit – but none have had the breakthrough she has.
Why? Like tennis’ Anna Kournikova, Patrick has the looks that will make men watch her, even if they don’t care about her steering skills. But unlike Kournikova, Patrick has earned the respect of the majority of her competitors, albeit begrudgingly by some, and the support of fans who do care about results.
Women support her too, liking that she takes her skills more seriously than Kournikova ever did.
“She is a great role model,” said Brooke deLench, the executive director of Momsteam.com, a support Web site for parents. “She has faced some opposition, but she has been able to stand right up to them. It’s typically a male sport, but frankly, women are great drivers.”
There have been some grumblings in the racing world that her small frame gives her an advantage over male drivers and she wouldn’t get all the attention she did if she weren’t attractive, but it’s hard to argue with the consistent talent she has shown.
“She has their respect,” Olson said of Patrick’s fellow drivers. “They know she is good and she is going to win some day; she might win this one. Females in racing isn’t a new story, but this one comes in an attractive package.”
Patrick started racing Go Karts as a child and won two national championships before switching to cars.
She attended a driving school run by another Indy 500 vet, Lyn St. James, then went to England and raced in the British developmental series. Success there caught the attention of owner Bobby Rahal, who signed Patrick to the Rahal Letterman racing team in 2002.
In 2003, she placed third in the Toyota Atlantic Series, the highest finish by a woman, then made her debut in the IRL series last year as a 23-year-old.
After her performance, she received a congratulatory phone call from Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone, who made the now-infamous comment that “women should be all dressed in white like other domestic appliances.”
Patrick shrugged off the slam, downplaying the incident and focusing on her racing instead.
“What I like about her is she is at the top of her game,” said Carrie Lukas, the vice president of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum. “No one is doing her any favors or changing the rules so she can compete against men. It’s frustrating because you can’t escape the fact that beauty plays a role, it’s the reality of sports as a business, but she handles it well and doesn’t play any victim role.”
For her part, Patrick seems to understand the added interest in her because of her looks. She is accommodating, but refuses to put any kind of added pressure on herself because others are interested in her. She has made it clear she is at the track to drive cars; if her presence helps the ratings and attendance, then great, but don’t tell her it is her duty to make racing a more popular sport.
“I have a problem with people thinking that because there’s exposure, that I have to do something,” she recently told the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t feel like I have to do anything. I feel I have to get the most out of myself, but that’s it. I’m living up to myself, and that’s all I can do.”