Danica Patrick definitely has 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 clearly is 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, Patrick, 34, 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.
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At the same time, she 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.
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 currently are just 48 Sprint Cup drivers.
And while the ability to drive a stock car 210 mph 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 “multiyear”).
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 often can 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.
A 24-year-old New York native, Landauer has proved herself behind the wheel: She finished fifth May 21 at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, Calif., and currently is fifth in the points standings.
She has 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 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 inevitably will 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 easily could 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.”
McIntosh, 26, grew up racing on dirt and pavement short tracks in midgets and other open-wheel cars, then she competed for two years in The U.S. F2000 National Championship series (sanctioned by IndyCar) before jumping over to stock cars in 2013, with NASCAR dreams.
Since then, she has done tests and run races in the Autombile Racing Club of America Series, a feeder to NASCAR’s three national series; this season, she has rounded up some small sponsorships and raced a dirt midget in Indiana this month.
But she’s still looking for a big sponsorship that will get her in a car and on the track – and keep it there. So she’s barely ever at her Plaza-Midwood apartment because she’s too often traveling, hustling, building relationships.
“I’m really focused on getting where we need to be,” McIntosh says, “because I can’t continue to call myself a race-car driver and not be racing full-time.”
‘I don’t see a downside’
There’s also an argument to be made that filling the bill as “the next Danica” wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
After all, this year, Forbes ranked Patrick seventh on its list of NASCAR’s highest-paid drivers: $13.4 million in total earnings – including $5.5 million in endorsements, higher than any male counterpart. She probably could sell hot cocoa to a guy in a sauna.
Those are paydays 23-year-old Ali Kern can only dream of right now, as a driver in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East.
Kern – who relocated from Ohio to China Grove and also is part of the Rev Racing team – says that, on the one hand, Patrick’s success has helped clear a path: “If Danica hadn’t have taken those steps and got to the top like she did, there wouldn’t be doors opening for us females like there are today.”
On the other, there still are – obviously – challenges. “The biggest,” Kern says, “is you show up at the race track and there’s 25 guys in the field, and you’re the only female. The focus is automatically on you. The fans are like, ‘Oh, how’s the girl gonna finish?’ So if you have a bad night, that reflects badly on all female drivers, vs. if some guy has a bad night, nobody really talks about it.”
But this actually could be an advantage, some say.
“There’s no reason for these big corporations not to want to be involved with female race car drivers,” says Jennifer Jo Cobb, 42, who has raced in NASCAR’s Truck Series since 2010 and can claim the highest finish ever by a woman in the national series.
“My first full-time season, I went to my home track at the Kansas Speedway and wrecked not once but twice, and it was so embarrassing. … And my sponsors were thrilled. All they could talk about was how people from Florida were calling them in Kansas City and talking about how they saw their truck on TV. So … I don’t see a downside to sponsoring someone who is capable and who shows longevity and desire to be in this sport.”
‘It takes a hundred girls’
Danica Patrick’s advice for young female drivers is pretty simple.
“You have to really love it,” she says. “It’s true with anything: If you don’t really care enough, then you won’t want to do it anymore. You’ll either quit, or you won’t do a good enough job, or you won’t put the right amount of effort in.”
And is she taking her own advice? Does she love it? “Of course,” Patrick says. Yet she quickly starts winding her way to a darker place.
“I don’t feel like there’s as much in my control. It’s just challenging. … I would say that it’s not racing, it’s been NASCAR that’s been frustrating, and just trying to get into a good rhythm where I feel like things are going the way that they should be going, and it’s been pretty up and down.
“Everybody has the days where their job just isn’t very much fun, and that’s just life. Signing autographs for a couple of hours is not my idea of a good time, but I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful that people show up and want that. …
“So there’s ebbs and flows to it all, but it still totally rules my mood. If things are going well on track, I’m happy. If it’s not going well on track, it’s frustrating. It’s just frustrating. When you care about something, it is.”
Patrick’s best finish in a points race this season has been 13th at the AAA 400 Drive for Autism on May 15, but her No. 10 Chevy has wound up 20th or worse nine times, including three wrecks. (After a crash during March, she got hit with a $20,000 fine and a four-race probation for violating safety rules by walking toward the racing surface to gesture at rival driver Kasey Kahne’s passing car.)
Still, it all needs to be put into perspective. Lest anyone forget, Patrick came over from IndyCar with an established brand and already had major corporate backing. She was the first woman to win a major-league open-wheel race in a North American IndyCar series, and her third-place result at the Indianapolis 500 in 2009 is the best finish ever there for a woman.
And remember, there currently are just 48 Sprint Cup drivers. She’s the only woman who has proven she can handle herself in the car and obtain the cash to keep it running. Though she’s squarely middle of the pack in the points standings – 23rd out of 48 – that still means there are 25 men below her in the standings heading into Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.
One just wonders if and when another woman might come along and do her one, or two, or 22 better. From where Patrick sits – on that sofa, in that million-dollar motor coach – the answer is: eventually. We just have to be patient.
“If it takes a hundred guys to find a good one and it takes a hundred girls to do the same, well, there’s a lot fewer girls coming through. So it’s going to take longer to find a good one,” Patrick says. “That’s really the simple truth.”