Has Danica Patrick Made It Easier, Or Harder, For Other Female Drivers?

By Théoden Janes The Charlotte Observer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Danica Patrick has become one of the richest, most influential and most popular drivers in the sport -- thanks at least in part to posing for bikini photos early on, and to her promotion of an active and healthy lifestyle more recently. So what type of affect has this had on other women in racing? Four top female drivers in the field give their perspectives.

The Charlotte Observer

Danica Patrick has definitely earned this luxury, this million-dollar motor coach, this prime parking space on the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

And as she describes what it takes to succeed as a woman at NASCAR's highest level, she is clearly describing herself.

"You gotta be the package," she says, curling into her seat while cradling her Belgian Malinois pup, Ella. "You have to be able to drive the car, you have to be able to look the part, to represent a company well, deliver a message, do an interview, and resonate with fans."

In the four years since she left a thriving IndyCar career to become the first woman to break the Sprint Cup barrier since 1995, the 34-year-old still lacks a win, and can claim just six top-10 finishes in 130 starts going into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At the same time, she's become one of the richest, most influential and most popular drivers in the sport -- thanks at least in part to posing for bikini photos early on, and to her promotion of an active and healthy lifestyle more recently.

Throughout her Sprint Cup career, Patrick hasn't had to share the spotlight with another woman. But young drivers like Madeline Crane, Ali Kern, Julia Landauer and Shannon McIntosh hope she'll need to do just that, someday soon -- with one (or more) of them.

All four want to break through for who they are and what they can do on the track. Yet all four, predictably, are compared to and asked about Patrick all the time. Thus the question: Has Patrick's path and her place in the sport made it easier or harder for women to follow in her footsteps?

'Flashy at first' The Sprint Cup is a very tough lug nut to crack. Whereas there are about 1,700 NFL players and roughly 250 golfers on the PGA Tour, there are currently just 48 Sprint Cup drivers.

And while the ability to drive a stock car 210 miles per hour in traffic is important -- really, really important -- it's almost impossible to race at that level without deep-pocketed corporate sponsors or a vast personal fortune.

According to Adweek, a primary sponsorship in 2013 cost anywhere from $5 million to $35 million. Reports have estimated Nature's Bakery's deal with Stewart-Haas Racing, owner of Patrick's car, at $54 million (the contract has been described only as "multi-year").

The Nature's Bakery partnership marked the dawn of a new era for Patrick, having traded in the bikini bottoms from her old job with GoDaddy for yoga pants -- which you can often see her wearing in photos she posts on Instagram.

"She happens to be good-looking and a good athlete, so we get a little bit of play off of that," says Nature's Bakery founder Dave Marson, but as far as making her a sex symbol, "that's not our drive."

But there probably always will be criticism over the choices Patrick has made.

Liz Clarke, a Washington Post sportswriter who has written only sporadically about NASCAR in recent years but covered motorsports during the late stages of Patrick's IndyCar career and early stages of her stock-car career, thinks Patrick missed an opportunity to become a role model.

"I'm all for female athletes, and women in general, being proud of their bodies and comfortable with their sexuality," Clarke told the Observer by email. "But there's a difference between a female athlete who's comfortable with her sexuality and a female athlete who uses it as her calling-card -- particularly when she's trying to earn respect in a traditionally male sport. To me, it was regrettable that Danica chose to build her brand on a relentlessly racy ad campaign. Her open-wheel accomplishments suggested she had far more to offer."

For her part, Patrick says: "We were flashy at first to get attention, and then we kind of grew up... (but) I wouldn't do anything different."

'Every racer is a startup' Since 2004, NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program has offered training, development opportunities and team sponsorship to minority and female drivers. Last year, 11 of the 20 drivers at the combine were female, but ultimately just two women were selected for the program.

And since 2011, NASCAR has chosen 35 drivers for its Next program, which was created to promote rising stars in the sport. Of those, only three have been women.

One is Julia Landauer, who represents the current Next class; drives her No. 54 Toyota Camry for Curb Records' race team in one of NASCAR's regional series (the K&N Pro Series West); and does seem to "be the package" Patrick is talking about.

The 24-year-old New York native has proven herself behind the wheel: She finished fifth last Saturday at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, Calif., and is currently fifth in the points standings.

She's already demonstrated that she can be TV-friendly, having finished 13th on the CBS reality show "Survivor" in 2013.

Plus, she has something most drivers at this level don't: a college degree. From Stanford University, no less.

"I'd love to be able to stand out as my own -- not The Next Danica but The First Julia," says Landauer, a STEM education advocate who once gave a TEDx talk at Stanford titled "Can nice girls win (races)?"

"I completely applaud her for being so tough and going through it. I also completely admire her brand. Racing, now, is very much about brand development and marketing. Whether you like it or not, that's what it is, and she has done an incredible job with that.

"She got on a great team and she has a lot of respect from people as a tough racer. But I have always felt that her brand is not the same as mine. I want to show through what I'm doing -- especially through emphasis on my education -- that you can be a different mold. You can be a different type of female and still make it."

'I'm a different driver' Madeline Crane graduated from high school on Friday. On Monday, she'll race the No. 17 car for B&B Racing in Virginia in a K&N Pro Series East race.

Sometime between now and then, someone will inevitably pop the question.

"Everybody keeps asking, 'You want to be The Next Danica?' " says Crane, 18, who also is part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. "I'm like, 'No.' I'm my own person. I'm a different driver, and I have my own goals. ... I do kind of get tired of it."

So does Shannon McIntosh. Dark-haired and petite, the Ohio native could easily draw comparisons to Patrick. But she names her role models as former racers Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher, and bristles ever-so-slightly at each mention of Patrick's name during an interview at the Observer. (Google "Shannon McIntosh" and "next Danica" and you'll understand why.) In fact, over the course of 45 minutes, McIntosh doesn't utter the word "Danica" once.

Instead, she says: "I'm not a complete prude -- I like to dress up and be girly. But at the same time, my selling point really is my story. I come from so little, and I come from a family that didn't know anything about racing and didn't have any connections in racing. ... For me, it's been about that story, but not really highlighting the sex side."

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