“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s a good question, whether men versus women have differences in reflex and response. But in general, yeah, I think the car doesn’t know the difference when the girl gets into it.”
We were talking by phone just a day after she had become the first woman ever to win the pole position for the Daytona 500, and questions about gender were inevitable. Patrick’s femininity dogs her. It’s the inescapable topic no matter what she does: If she runs hot in her Go Daddy car, she’s a barrier-breaker for women, and if she wrecks or finishes poorly, her detractors call her an over-sold pin-up girl, who takes victory laps for her gender without winning anything. Either way, she hits the public nerve.
What’s most interesting to me about Patrick, though, is not her womanness, but how she deals with it. Watching her walk through her fledgling career as the only female in NASCAR is not unlike watching a driver adroitly pick off cars, negotiate curves and avoid trouble in a crowded field. It’s an essay in control. In talking to her about this larger performance, what you get is a blast of cool intelligence, a fundamentally composed whip-smartness.
There is Danica the Brand, she says, and then there is Danica the Driver, and then there is Danica the OverBlown Doll. And she is very clear on the differences between them, and the awkward fact that her accomplishments, while many, do not yet meet her accelerated public stature.
“The brand is a good thing,” she said. “And it takes time, and you can’t buy that, it just has to happen. From the time earlier in my career in 2005, when I came on the scene big, from that point on, it’s been a continuous building process. And no matter what happens it seems there is more awareness of me, and my name. Over time you create the brand because there is a certain consistency to what you say, what you do, and how you speak. . . . I would say that the ‘brand’ is an identity, of certain things I stand for, an image. If people have criticism of me, and whether I live up to something, it’s not of the brand or image, it’s the hype and media attention.”
The hype is the one thing she can’t steer.
“It’s a response thing,” she said. “And I’m grateful for it, but it’s not something I control.”
What Patrick is trying to do is close the gap between those different versions of herself. She moved to NASCAR from Indycar racing last year in part because it felt more natural to her. She was weary of the Indycar emphasis on scientific data, whereas NASCAR, despite its hurly-burly, is more about the soft feel of her hands on the wheel, and her close relationship with her crew chief, Tony Gibson. He’s an “old school” NASCAR chief, she says, who likes to hunt, fish, and listen to country music. The two would not seem to be suited for each other, yet they are.