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

Indycar's Danica Patrick has gone further than any female racer before her in playing up her gender and sexuality through racy photo shoots and provocative TV ads.
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Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

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.

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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."

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