INDIANAPOLIS — Heading into Sunday's Indianapolis 500, it seems there is only one place driver Danica Patrick hasn't made an appearance: a victory lane somewhere in the IRL IndyCar Series.
While becoming one of the country's most recognizable female athletes, she has ridden shotgun with Jay-Z and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a music video, dished as a guest co-host of The View and starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Internet domain registrar GoDaddy.com, one of several companies to feature her in national advertising.
In just the last two months, the former TV Guide and Sports Illustrated cover subject traveled the talk-show circuit to chat with former racing boss David Letterman (her fourth Late Show appearance) and Jimmy Kimmel.
Now if she could just get a win.
"It's this thing that's always lurking," says Patrick, who acknowledges feeling more pressure than ever about getting her first victory, partly because "there's less excuses."
Marketing experts say she needs to win soon to sustain her mainstream popularity. Her appeal "could be relatively short-lived because it could be perceived as too gimmicky," says David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "Plenty of athletes have come and gone that were packaged well but didn't win and people tired of them over time."
With the exception of pioneers Shirley Muldowney, one of the greatest drag racers of all time, and Janet Guthrie, the only woman to race in the Indy 500 and NASCAR's famed Daytona 500, Patrick is one of the most accomplished female drivers in motor sports history. She also has had to work amid a media and commercial crush.
She leveraged that renown and an expression of interest in NASCAR to switch teams after last season from Rahal Letterman Racing, which struggled to make her machine competitive in 2006, to Andretti Green Racing, which has won two of the last three IRL team championships.
She was the top qualifier among the record three women in Sunday's 33-car-field, and she will start eighth — 13 spots ahead of Sarah Fisher, 21 ahead of Milka Duno.
Fisher is among the seven drivers in Sunday's race who have more IRL starts than Patrick's 34 but no victories; Fisher has 54 starts. Vitor Meira, Patrick's former teammate at Rahal Letterman, is winless in 63 starts with seven runner-up finishes.
But Patrick's current teammate, Marco Andretti, won last year in his 13th start. The nine other drivers in Sunday's field who began their open-wheel careers in the IRL and have at least one victory needed an average of 11.6 starts to get their first victory.
Patrick, 25, had a breakthrough fourth-place finish as a rookie in the 2005 Indy 500, where she became the first woman to lead a lap at the world's most famous racetrack. Since then, her results haven't been as spellbinding as the attention she has drawn. She hasn't led during a race in 19 months, a span of 18 races, and has finished in the top five twice (fourth both times) in her last 29 races.
Despite joining the powerful Andretti Green team this season, she has a best finish of seventh. After her success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005, "All of a sudden the world was like, 'When are you going to win?' " she says. "It just started so long ago. I know I can do it."
Endorsement income still flowing
Patrick hasn't shied from capitalizing on her appearance, which "risks people saying she really is all flash and little substance," says Mike Bartelli, senior vice president of motor sports for Millsport, a sports marketing and consulting division of The Marketing Arm agency, which has worked with sponsors involved with the IRL and NASCAR. "If another couple of years go by (without a win), you're going to see a steady erosion in the public's appreciation of what she's doing. I don't know if there's anyone who would say she's not being given equipment capable of winning."
At Indy this month, there has been one indicator Danica-mania might be slightly on the wane. After her merchandise outsold the other 32 drivers' combined at Indy in 2005 and pulled a 42.8% market share last year, sales haven't been as brisk this year, according to track figures. Patrick's blue-and-black gear has accounted for 34.5% of driver merchandise sold while sales of products touting defending race winner Sam Hornish Jr. have risen to 19.5% (from 11% last year).
But Patrick's team and her sponsor, Motorola, show no signs of wavering.
Kathleen Finato, the company's director of North American marketing, says "it's not imperative she win to make this valuable" for Motorola, which recently launched a campaign that is centered on Patrick.
"She transcends the sport of motor racing," Finato says. "She's very iconic. … You don't have to watch Indy Racing to know who Danica Patrick is."
Cooling it on the cheesecake approach
Patrick makes no apologies for raising her profile by baring skin. In an April 2003 photo spread for FHM magazine, a scantily clad Patrick straddled a 1957 Chevrolet.
"Pictures never die; I heard that a long time ago," laughs Patrick, who since has turned down posing for Playboy and Maxim. "There's a movie, Sliding Doors, where the second the door shuts, your life can change. Every single thing that happens along the way contributes to where you're at. So I don't regret anything."
Patrick has become a spokeswoman for a diverse lineup of companies, including Peak Antifreeze, Tissot, Coca-Cola, Argent Mortgage, XM Radio, AirTran and Hostess. She has earned $2.2 million in prize money but likely has earned several times that from endorsements, making her the IRL's best-paid driver. Such corporate support is essential in a sport where teams can't compete without multimillion-dollar budgets. Guthrie says finding sponsorship remains "the single biggest difficulty for women in racing."
"Danica's appearance in that girlie magazine established a persona that a number of women drivers weren't happy to see but was very clearly successful for her," Guthrie says. "You might call it old-fashioned, but most of us wanted to be judged on the basis of what we accomplished than how we looked. I'm sure she does, too, but she's not been reluctant to take advantage of her marketable good looks."
Lyn St. James, a seven-time Indy 500 starter and the 1992 race's top rookie, says those who take issue with Patrick landing sponsors through her looks need to "get over it." She thinks a double standard exists, noting NASCAR driver Carl Edwards' bare-chested pose on an ESPN The Magazine cover didn't cause controversy. "Some guys have an extra advantage because of their looks, and other guys that aren't so good looking still get sponsors and get to race," says St. James, who has known Patrick since she was 13 and helped mentor her in go-kart racing. "But for women, you're judged on performance, but you have an extra scale of how you look because women are always judged that way because of society."
Better rapport with new teammates
Two years ago, Andretti Green Racing boycotted an autograph session at the Milwaukee Mile because IRL officials set aside a separate line for Patrick fans. The AGR drivers sought Patrick out to assure her it wasn't personal. "They've been upstanding guys from the beginning," she says.
Over dinners and at the track, she has bonded quickly with her new teammates, particularly 2004 champion Tony Kanaan.
Kanaan met with IRL officials at Kansas Speedway before last month's race because he was concerned too much focus might be put on Patrick at the expense of her and the series, whose other stars lack the name recognition of NASCAR.
"She's a very good spokesperson, a good-looking girl and she's fast," Kanaan says. "She is always going to draw more attention than everyone else, but let's try to (promote) other guys, too.
"If you spread your options between five or six guys, there's less pressure than on just one person. We've got to have a balance, because drivers have a tendency to be jealous about the others."
Patrick already has a cool relationship with some peers. Buddy Rice won't talk about Patrick directly but has taken jabs at his former Rahal Letterman teammate's flirtation with NASCAR last year ("There are some people that posture at [NASCAR] with no intentions of going there."). Patrick doesn't speak with fellow female drivers Duno or Fisher (asked if she tried to talk to Patrick, Fisher says, "Let's say my teammate is Buddy Rice and end it right there.").
Rahal Letterman Racing's Bobby Rahal concedes Patrick was a part of his team's worst season in '06 largely because its cars fell behind the technology curve. But even when she had a contending car in '05, inexperience often hindered Patrick, who led only one lap in the three races she started from the pole.
"Even though I didn't know what the heck I was doing yet, I could do it," says Patrick, who is eighth in the points standings — four spots ahead of her ranking after four races as a rookie. "Now if I'm up front and it comes down to it, I know I can do it."
Rahal says: "The jury is still out whether she'll ever win a race, but there's a lot of great drivers who haven't won. … If she was at the tail end of the field, that's one thing, but she can run up front. Her potential is great, and that's what draws interest."
But the interest also can create headaches. Rahal says he doesn't miss the circuslike atmosphere that surrounded Patrick. "We tried to minimize that as much as possible," Rahal says. "That's tough to do when you become bigger than the sport itself. In 2005, it was crazy, and there were a hell of a lot of distractions, and she handled it awfully well."
Fellow driver Jaques Lazier, who once had a postcrash shouting match with Patrick, concedes he "would like to be as popular and get all the attention … but she carries herself very well."
"People always say, 'Why is she still here?' because she hasn't won," says Lazier, who expects Patrick to win this year. "Well, it's because it's so competitive. That team is so good anyone can jump in and do well. She's just been unlucky, and racing takes a lot of luck. I don't think you can question her ability."
In a recent interview on Fox News Channel, Your World host Neil Cavuto did just that. As video ran of Patrick striking sultry poses at photo shoots from years past, Patrick was asked what she thought of those who say "there's no there there with you … that you're not that great a racer."
Patrick says: "He pretty much tried to call me a nobody. That comes with the territory, and I've got to imagine after a few wins, they're probably not going to be able to say that anymore.
"But we'll see when that time comes."
Readers: Despite her lack of wins, is Danica Patrick good for the IRL? Share your thoughts below.
IndyCar victories elusive to many
How Danica Patrick's career statistics stack up against those of other relatively new IRL IndyCar Series drivers who had at least 10 starts in their rookie years:
Class of 2004
Class of 2005
Class of 2006
|Source: IRL * — Ran three races in 2003; ** — Ran two races in 2004|