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Racecar driver Danica Patrick stands out in a man's sport by playing up her sex appeal

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; D01

Danica Patrick has been shaking up stereotypes about racecar drivers since her dazzling debut in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, in which she became the first woman to lead the famed race and roared to a fourth-place finish at more than 220 mph.

But the "Danica Mania" that resulted wasn't simply inspired by that fact that Patrick is a woman competing in a man's world. It has also been driven by the fact that Patrick has gone further than any female racer before her in playing up her gender and sexuality through racy photo shoots for men's magazines and provocative TV ads for her sponsor GoDaddy.com, which feature her unzipping her racing suit and stepping into a shower as college-age boys drool over the Internet.

Sports fans can expect the next onslaught of Danica Mania this weekend.

On Saturday, Patrick, 27, will strap into the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet for her stock-car racing debut at Daytona International Speedway, competing in a 200-mile ARCA event that is a prelude to NASCAR's season-opening Daytona 500. Speed TV will broadcast the race with laser-like focus on Patrick's every left turn through streaming in-car cameras, a dedicated roof camera and audio of pit-to-car radio communications.

Then, during Sunday's Super Bowl broadcast, Patrick will star in two new GoDaddy commercials. One spot features her dolled up as Marilyn Monroe and gyrating like Jennifer Beals in "Flashdance." The other coaxes viewers to GoDaddy's Web site to watch a third ad that CBS censors banned as too outrageous to air.

GoDaddy founder and chief executive Bob Parsons characterizes Patrick's ads as "fun, edgy and a little inappropriate."

Jim Gallagher of IMG, the global sports-marketing giant that represents Patrick, hails the company for funding her racing career and promoting her "with campaigns that feature her beauty and sense of humor."

But others question Patrick's somewhat salacious marketing tack. Is Patrick, who, according to Forbes magazine, earned $7 million last year, an example of an empowered athlete who is shrewdly in command of her image? Or is she being exploited, or exploiting herself, to stand out in an admittedly competitive market for limited sponsorship dollars?

In the view of racing pioneer Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 in the late 1970s, Patrick's approach is "distasteful" -- particularly given her accomplishments behind the wheel, which include becoming the first woman to win an Indycar race, the Indy Japan 300 in April 2008.

"I find the GoDaddy ads moderately distasteful, but not nearly as distasteful as the still photos Danica did for the girlie magazine" FHM, said Guthrie, referring to a photo shoot in which Patrick posed in red leather bustier, black hot pants and black stiletto boots draped across the hood of a muscle car. "But she made, what, $7 million last year? And if she is okay with that, that's her choice to make. What worries me is the example that she is setting for young girls, that that's what you have to do to get ahead, when, in point of fact, there is more behind Danica's story than that."

But to third-generation NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, Patrick is simply leveraging her assets to get ahead. How are her ads any different from NASCAR driver Carl Edwards's shirtless cover photo for ESPN The Magazine, Petty asks, which flaunts a ripped torso?

"Danica is in the unique position to be able to use that side of who she is -- her feminine side -- to attract sponsors and market herself," says Petty, 49. "A male racecar driver will use everything in his power to market himself, so you can't criticize Danica for doing the same thing. You have to use the tools you have to market yourself, along with your driving ability. It's how you look, how you speak, how you handle yourself -- it's the whole package."

Other examples

Patrick is hardly alone among contemporary female athletes who are accentuating their looks to build their brand.

After winning Wimbledon at age 17, Maria Sharapova became a global marketing icon, hawking watches, mobile phones and cameras through glamorous ad campaigns, and donning a bikini for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. U.S. Olympian Julia Mancuso bared a rock-hard physique in bikini and ski boots, while Gretchen Bleiler posed in similar fashion in bikini with snowboard. And Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard shed it all for a 2007 Playboy shoot.

According to Peter Carlisle, director of Olympic and action sports for the McLean-based Octagon agency, the trend is part of a larger cultural shift in the way young women present themselves, whether in the halls of the local high school, on the red carpet of the Grammy Awards or on the playing field.

And for athletes whose careers will be brief, with a five- or 10-year window in which to earn a living, there are far more opportunities today to elevate their Q-score than there were a decade or two ago, he notes.

"It's primarily a personal choice each of these athletes makes -- whatever that choice is -- whether it's to take part in an FHM photo shoot or not," Carlisle says. "Sure, by doing it, you're going to turn some people on, and you're going to run some people off. It further defines your image to the general public."

IMG's Gallagher insists Patrick is fully in charge of her branding strategy, which includes deals with Mattel's Barbie and Hot Wheels and a Got Milk? campaign. "She has great business and marketing savvy, and understands the brand vision she and IMG have crafted for the future, and she chooses partners that fit that vision," Gallagher wrote in an e-mail.

A Wisconsin native, Patrick started racing go-karts at 10 years old and showed so much promise that she dropped out of high school and moved to England at 16 to compete in the prestigious Formula Ford series, a classic stepping stone to an Indycar career. That led to a contract with Rahal Letterman Racing, for whom she made her Indy 500 debut.

Despite her fourth-place finish, Patrick struggled for sponsorship deals and marketing opportunities. So in she changed race teams, found a new sponsor in GoDaddy in 2006, signed with IMG and announced plans to compete part-time in NASCAR, the country's most popular form of racing, while continuing her Indycar career.

In the process, Patrick took on the role of a seductive "GoDaddy Girl" -- a move that Amy Bass, an associate professor of history at the University of New Rochelle and author of "In the Game," an analysis of issues of race and identity in sports, argues can be viewed as shrewd.

"Men are never held to the same aesthetic standard. Women have to go beyond doing well to get attention -- and that's not just in sports," Bass said. "That's what gender bias does. So rather than saying, 'I'm going to try and fit in and be like them,' [Patrick] said, 'Screw them! I'm a woman!'

"You can take it either way. One of the ways 'other-ness' can be dealt with in an empowering way is to exaggerate it. Rather then be like the boys, she is making no mistake about who she is. And it works for her."

Unique crowd in NASCAR

It remains to be seen how NASCAR fans will respond. NASCAR fans tend to care more about a driver's personality than his skill. Women also account for nearly 40 percent of NASCAR fans, far more than the Indycar circuit.

Veteran promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler wonders if female NASCAR fans will cheer Patrick's seductive public image.

"When you're doing that kind of marketing, you are on a razor's edge with the NASCAR crowd," Wheeler says. "Men are men. But with NASCAR's heavily female crowd, you have to be really careful. You're not only talking about appealing to a female crowd, you're talking about a substantially fundamentalist crowd."

Guthrie predicts Patrick will do well in Saturday's race, given the quality of the Hendrick Motorsports engine under the hood of her No. 7 Chevy. She's also confident Patrick will be treated with more respect by fellow stock-car racers than she was in the late 1970s.

Back then, NASCAR drivers told reporters they feared for their lives if Guthrie were allowed on track. Women didn't have the strength to race cars, they said. Women didn't have the endurance for a 600-mile race, they griped, and they surely didn't have the emotional stability.

Guthrie's reward was in silencing them with her results.

"There's nothing like cognitive dissonance," Guthrie says. "If you've stated that this is a woman and, therefore, a no-good driver, then what does that make you when the no-good driver blows your doors off?"

Yet despite the progress of the last three decades, Guthrie suspects it's still more difficult for female racers to get corporate sponsors than male. And without a handsomely-funded racecar and team, even the best driver's talent can't shine.

In Guthrie's case, she finally found sponsorship for her NASCAR debut from Kelly Girl secretarial services. She recalls chafing at the prospect of driving the "Kelly Girl" car in an era in which the practice of referring to grown women as "girls" was a sensitive topic among women trying to make a mark in the business world.

"But that was a compromise I was willing to make in order to get my hands on the racecar," Guthrie says.

As this era's GoDaddy Girl, Patrick, it can be argued, is doing the same.

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