F Features

It’s a Woman’s World

Danica Makes the Grade

For a woman of such small stature — just 5-feet-2-inches, 100 pounds — Danica Sue Patrick carries a lot of weight on her shoulders. She is an inspiration for female athletes around the globe. She is a role model for young girls, especially those with driving ambitions. And in the eyes Opening_optof many, she is the face of the IRL IndyCar series and the best hope for the future success of open wheel racing in North America.

On April 20, 2008 Danica became the first woman ever to win an IndyCar race when she triumphed at Motegi, Japan, in her 50th IRL start. And the media floodgates opened. In the following days, she appeared on just about every major TV talk show in the US. She was more in demand than any movie star that week.

The Face of IndyCar

The next weekend at Kansas City, well over $100,000 worth of Danica merchandise was sold — a figure usually reserved for NASCAR’s elite and definitely a new record for an IRL driver. And upcoming IndyCar race venues across the US reported an immediate and dramatic surge in ticket sales.
“Danica’s win was bigger than we even hoped,” said Terry Angstadt, president of IndyCar’s commercial division. As for the lady
herself, she said, “It was an exciting week. It was a lot of fun. I never mind doing a lot of these live shows and talking to people like
David Letterman. It’s not a bad gig.”
Even her rivals acknowledge and appreciate what she is doing for open wheel racing at a critical time following the merger of IndyCar andFace_opt Champ Car. “Her popularity has helped to grow the sport. We would not be as strong without her,” said Dan Wheldon in applauding her victory. “I didn’t want her to become like Anna Kournikova,” he added in reference to the popular tennis beauty who never won a tournament.
Some may recall that Wheldon won the Indy 500 in 2005, although it’s easy to forget. After all, that was the day that “Danica-mania” was born as she became the first woman to lead that race — for 19 laps — on her way to a fourth-place finish and Rookie-of-the-Year status. Wheldon became a virtual footnote in the ensuing media coverage, while Danica appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
She returned to the pages of SI this February, in the magazine’s annual swimsuit edition, wearing a scanty white bikini. It was not her first racy photo shoot. She has also appeared in FHM Magazine and Maxim. But in May, she appeared again in SI, this time on the cover and in her racing suit, with the headline, “Yes, She Can,” following her victory in Japan.

The Danica Brand

The fact that she is so willing to exploit her sexuality, despite her Catholic upbringing, has drawn criticism in some quarters, but the petite 26-year-old brunette is undeniably sultry. Whereas Sarah Fisher — another Midwesterner who was the first woman to claim an IndyCar pole position — has always promoted a clean, wholesome, girl-next-door image, Danica recognizes that sex sells.
“I love doing stuff outside the car that gets across my femininity, that makes women look beautiful,” she recently told the Associated Press. Wheldon_opt“To me, that’s fun. I’m a very feminine person. I’ve never done anything I didn’t feel good about. I don’t ever do anything I’m uncomfortable with. Those things that push the limit a little bit more, those are things we talk about as a group, as a family, as a business.”

It is true that Danica is now very much a business. She has become more than just a celebrated sports star, acknowledging herself that she is now also a “brand” name. She commands a salary of about $7-8 million for driving — more than anyone else in the IRL — but almost
certainly doubles that with her many endorsements and TV commercials for everything from the GoDaddy.com website to Tissot watches.

She has somehow accomplished the dual feat of becoming both a role model for young girls and a sex symbol for their fathers. She recently won the 2008 Kids’ Choice award as favourite female athlete, while at the same time she was named sexiest athlete by Victoria’s Secret and she has twice made it onto FHM’s 100 hottest women list (ranked number 85 in 2007).

So it is that she drives for powerhouse Andretti-Green Racing, winner of three of the past four IRL titles, whereas the wholesome Fisher struggles to put together financing for her own team. Which begs the question of whether Danica’s success is unique or can serve to benefit other women in the sport.

Helping the Gender

“It helps, for sure,” said Valerie Limoges, Canada’s top current female driver. “It’s good for women drivers because there’s not a lot of us in this profession. She had to win because she’s been in the series a long time and she drives for a good team.”

Limoges, 24, from Longueuil, was Quebec’s Formula 125 karting champion in 2001 and in 2007 became the first female driver ever to earn a Fans_optpole in the Grand-Am Koni Challenge sedan series. She had a best finish of fourth, driving a Ford Mustang. She is currently on the sidelines as her team, Black Forest Racing, prepares a new car, but she expects to be back in action before the end of the season.

On the same weekend as Danica won in Japan, Swiss miss Simona de Silvestro staked her claim to future fame by winning the Mazda Atlantic race at Long Beach. The 19-year-old is currently second in the championship. Even Danica, who spent two years in Atlantics (2003-04), never won in that category.

The one previous female Atlantic winner was Katherine Legge, from England, who took three victories in 2005, but then spent two rather disappointing seasons in Champ Car. She now races touring cars for Audi in the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisters) in Germany.

Certainly, there are more women in racing today than ever before and Danica hopes that she is at the forefront of an estrogen-fueled march into the future.

“There might be girls that come along that start blowing me out of the water,” she said at a news conference following her Japanese triumph. “I hope not, but I think that that’s what’s going to show 20 years from now. I’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, that was the start of a major wave.’

“I’m part of a wave of women who are doing different things, great things outside of the normal. I don’t think it’s just me. I think it’s just showing that we are capable of anything. And vice-versa. There’s so much more gender crossover now than there has ever been. It speaks to women and to people breaking the mold. I’m part of a really big picture.”

Danica has always said she thinks of herself as a race driver like any other, just one who happens to be a woman. Still, she was happy to In Car_optembrace the historic nature of her win, which her IndyCar predecessor Lyn St. James compared to Billie Jean King’s momentous tennis triumph over Bobby Riggs in the 1970s.

“I do recognize that it’s history. It’s going to be one of those things that’s remembered. It’s a first and firsts are always in history books. I’ve definitely thought about that. It’s probably one of the things I thought about as a girl — that it would be nice to be the first female to win in history, since history goes on for a pretty long time. I’m really honoured that Lyn would say it’s the biggest thing since Billie Jean King. That’s a big deal.”

Danica, who was born in Wisconsin and raised in Illinois, began driving karts when she was just nine years old. Her father, TJ Patrick, an avid snowmobile racer, bought karts for both his daughters. His youngest, Brooke, did not take to the sport, but Danica was quickly hooked and as a teen, set various track records for her age group, while dicing with the likes of Sam Hornish Jr.

She dropped out of school at age 16 after she secured sponsorship to go to England to race in Formula Vauxhall and later Formula Ford. She established her reputation by finishing second — behind recent F1 driver Anthony Davidson — in the worldwide Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 2000. Returning to North America, she signed a three-year contract to drive for the team of Bobby Rahal.

In two seasons in Atlantics, she finished sixth (2003) and third (2004) in the championship with five podium finishes and one pole. She then moved into IndyCars with Rahal/Letterman Racing in 2005 and in just her fifth start she became an overnight media darling as she came so close to winning the Indy 500.

Chasing History

At the end of 2005 — in what some called a “ruthless” move — she abandoned mentor Rahal and switched to the mighty Andretti/Green team. She had podium finishes and pole positions, but her inability to find her way to victory circle inspired her critics to make those Kournikova comparisons — a pretty face who cannot win. She was overwhelmed by a feeling of relief as she finally triumphed in Japan and fought back tears.

“I was more emotional about it than I expected to be,” she said. “I expected to be relieved and I was, but I didn’t think I was going to cry. Crying_optWhat a relief, you know? We all have dreams of being the best and being victorious. Dreams really do come true. You just have to be persistent.”

She does not think Motegi was necessarily her best race — it was determined largely by fuel conservation strategy — but said, “You take every win you can possibly get.” She recalls what former teammate Bryan Herta told her. “At Mid-Ohio last year, when I had my first front-row on a road course, he said: ‘The day you win your first race, you’re not going to be doing anything different. It’s just going to happen.’ And it’s true.”

For three straight years, Danica has been voted the most popular driver in the IRL — no surprise, given the long line-ups for her autograph every weekend — and her Canadian fans will get the chance to see her in person when the series races for the first time on this side of the border at Edmonton on July 26.

She last raced in Canada at Montreal in August, 2004, when she was fourth in the Atlantic event (narrowly edging local favourite Andrew Ranger). She claims to have a special fondness for this country and not just because she is an avid music fan whose favourite artist is Ottawa-born Alanis Morrisette.

“I always love going to Canada,” she said during a recent teleconference. “The Canadian fans are always so genuine, so excited and so knowledgeable. I’m looking forward to going back.”races for the first time on this side of the border at Edmonton on July 26.

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