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Danica Patrick: What’s all the fuss about?

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It looks like all the buzz about Danica Patrick, the IndyCar driver who has had decent but not outstanding success, moving to NASCAR or even to Formula One next year has finally died down. At the recent IndyCar event at Sonoma she pretty well confirmed that she plans to stay with the Andretti team next year – saying that “... the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.”

Earlier this year, the talk about Patrick signing on with a top NASCAR team or even the new U.S.-based formula one team was rampant. The many proponents of this idea – many of whom professed to believe that such a move was a certainty – argued that she was such a valuable ‘brand’ that she would attract so much sponsorship money that she could write her own ticket wherever she wanted to go - and that she would make the move.

This fantasy view contrasted with the reality that her actual driving record has been more mid-pack then front-runner. Yes, she has one IndyCar win but she has never been in the same league with the front runners in here sport like former IndyCar champions Sam Hornish or Dario Franchitti. These two men both jumped to NASCAR and quickly learned the reality that this is a very difficult transition. Franchitti never excelled and team-owner Ganassi could not find sponsors to back him in NASCAR so he lost his ride and has returned to IndyCar this year having put his disappointing NASCAR foray behind him. Hornish was a star in IndyCar but after he moved to NASCAR he experienced the long learning curve that’s needed to become proficient in this very different style of racing. Finally, in his third year here, Hornish is starting to get better results – but he is still looking for his first win.

Former Indy 500 champion and F1 star Juan Montoya also moved to NASCAR a couple of years ago and he’s finally starting to look like a serious contender. But for an unfortunate speeding penalty he might have won the Brickyard 400 and he is set to make the 12-member Chase, giving him a long-shot chance at the 2009 Cup championship. But he’s still not exactly a front runner yet.

The idea that Patrick could jump into NASCAR and immediately become competitive was a fantasy – and no matter how big her ‘brand’ is or how much sponsorship she could bring it seemed like the bubble would collapse when she showed up on the track and put up performances as bad or worse as Hornish’s were in his first year there.

The idea that there was ever a realistic chance that she might appear on the starting grid of a formula one race doesn’t merit comment.

So, Patrick, having assessed all her possibilities, seems to have chosen the only option open to her. She will stay in IndyCar where her ‘brand’ seems to be worth something. Given the diminished market values of any aspect of the IRL’s IndyCar series these days, that ‘Danica brand” is of limited value.

I wanted to say that I don’t understand what this is all about. I could point out that – except for the fact that she’s female and able to pose in a bikini – she’s nothing special. Even in the small field of IndyCar drivers, there are many others who have much better drivers and who produce consistently better performances – and who, on that basis, deserve the adulation of the fans much more than her.

But, I think I do know what excites the race fans – it’s sex. I have to admit that once upon a time when I was younger, the idea of an attractive female embracing auto racing, had its erotic allure. Now, I look at Danica and the way she presents herself and the way the fans swoon over her and I see that chemistry going on.

For sure, Danica understands this. She willingly poses for revealing ‘sexy’ photos time after time. Yes, it makes her popular – but as a sex object, not as a genuine race driver. Now the buzz is that she will appear in ESPN magazine’s answer to Sports Illustrated’s bathing suit issue. What’s that got to do with auto racing? Nothing. But it feeds those adolescent male fantasies – and makes her a valuable property for her sponsors.

Why have the other two women in IndyCar not attracted their own hordes of sex-starved panting boys? Back when Sarah Fisher was the only game in town she was the media darling and she seemed to have a not inconsiderable fan base. Over in NASCAR, Erin Croker, attracted disproportionate attention for a while. Milka Duno?

Compared to Danica, none of these have affected the sexy looks or achieved the on-track performance Danica has. (Forget about the distortions because of the focus on her sex appeal and Danica is still a pretty good mid-pack driver.) Danica is the one who can pull off the sexy photo shoots and she capitalizes on this. Perhaps the others realize that, in the long run, women cannot expect to be taken seriously as race drivers so long as they continue to fall back on selling themselves as sex objects rather than on their performance wheel-to-wheel with their male counterparts on the track.

Go Danica! But keep your clothes on ...

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