It was not the sort of beginning that would portend Danica Patrick was going to be a glass-ceiling breaker.
Patrick was a little known driver competing in lower-tier races when the editors of FHM, a now defunct magazine, approached her team owners about doing a photo essay in 2003. The resulting spread “The Hottest Thing on Wheels Since Roller Girl” featured Patrick in boots, a bustier and leather panties, her legs spread suggestively across the hood of a car. With the photos ran a short interview where Patrick answered questions such as “Is your underwear flame retardant?”
Fast forward 15 years and no one has done more for women in the sport than 36-year-old Patrick, who will run her final race Sunday in the Indianapolis 500. And, because of her willingness to think outside the box to fund her career, no one has been more controversial.
Patrick is the most successful and prominent female in the history of racing. She was the first and remains the only woman to race consistently full-time in both IndyCar and NASCAR. She has six top 10 finishes in seven starts at the Indianapolis 500. She was the first female driver to win an IndyCar race — the 2008 Indy Japan 300 — and to lead laps in the Indy 500, which she did as a rookie in 2005.
She is one of the few drivers, male or female, whose celebrity transcends the sport. She is known simply as Danica, putting her in the same rarified first-name-only stratosphere as LeBron James and Serena Williams. She is an astute businesswoman, owns her own winery and is worth $60 million, according to the site Celebrity Net Worth.
Yet, Patrick remained a divisive figure in her sport, especially in NASCAR where just as many fans seemed to root against her as for her. Her critics have charged that Patrick was a better self-promoter than driver. But the fact is racing is so expensive that she wouldn’t have been able to do one without the other.
All those sexually suggestive Go Daddy ads gave Patrick a lot of years in the profession that she loved. Those who have a problem with that should blame the environment that rewards that rather than the competitor who took advantage of it.
“Danica fits the cultural norm of attractiveness and she has capitalized on that to get endorsement deals which have taken her beyond the sport,” says Allison Harthcock, an associate professor of Critical Communication and Media Studies at Butler University who also teaches several classes on gender and women’s studies and sports media. “This is the issue female athletes often face. To get attention for their sport, they’re encouraged to sexualize themselves . . . Most people blame the athlete. They don’t look at the culture and the way it rewards it.”
Patrick has never seemed entirely comfortable carrying the feminist flag, yet that may end up being her biggest legacy. A generation has grown up watching a woman make a living over a significant period of time racing cars. Patrick, who was in New York early last week, said she hopes her success has served as an inspiration to others to follow their dreams, no matter what they may be.
“When a family is at the track or at home watching a race and they see me and their kid is confused and says ‘Is that a girl out there?’, I hope this gives them a conversation point to tell them anything is possible,” Patrick said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a race car driver or something else — a girl doing something in a guy’s world or a guy doing something in a girl’s world.
“In general, I just say find what it is that you love to do and enjoy. If you love it enough and are a self starter, you make sacrifices. Not because you feel they are sacrifices. But because you think it’s the way.”