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August 14, 2009

News & Features

New frontiers: Indy star Danica Patrick mulls her options -- could NASCAR be next?

New York Times News Service

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick, left, talks with fellow driver Hideki Mutoh prior to qualifying for the Suntrust Indy Challenge auto race in Virginia in June. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. -- Kris Ayres had his reasons for taking a day off work to get a picture of himself with an arm around the shoulder of race-driving star Danica Patrick.

"She's beautiful," says Ayres, 27, who made certain he was first in a long, outdoor autograph line last month at a Florida water park. "And she's good at what she does."

Not a bad marketing pitch right there, as if Patrick needed any help. Already she has been a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; appeared in the most-watched Super Bowl commercial for 2009; and been a winner on the sleek and dangerous IndyCar circuit, taking a 300-mile race in Japan last year.

With her Indy Racing League (IRL) contract with team Andretti Green expiring after this season, however, the question so often on the lips of motor racing fans is: Where will she be a year from now?

Race schedule
  • Upcoming races in which Danica Patrick is scheduled to drive:
  • Aug. 23: Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, Infineon Raceway, California
  • Aug. 29: Peak Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300, Chicagoland Speedway, Illinois
  • Sept. 19: Indy Japan 300, Twin Ring Motegi
  • Oct. 10: Firestone Indy 300 (IndyCar series championship), Homestead-Miami Speedway, Florida

Patrick, 27, is keeping her options open -- from staying in the IRL to entertaining offers from Formula One and NASCAR.

"I'm very flattered everyone is curious," she says. "It's interesting to me as well. Do I stay where I am? Do I try to change? It's all about evaluating options, and I think that's something any good businessperson does."

NASCAR, the richest and most visible racing league in the United States, is the last frontier for women in racing. Not only has a woman not won a NASCAR Cup race, there has not been a woman who has run a full season.

And speculation is heating up that Patrick will hotfoot it in that direction. Her income and endorsements could triple as a NASCAR driver, even if her race results are mediocre.

"She would have a huge impact on NASCAR," says Humpy Wheeler, the former president of Lowe's Motor Speed way in North Carolina. "Sixty percent of the NASCAR crowd is male, and they like the current drivers, but there's not any pretty ones out there."

Danica Patrick with fans

Bill Ingram / New York Times News Service

That leads to the question, which part of Patrick's personal accomplishments should appropriately be blown up? The sex-symbol angle tends to get more play than her historic victory last season or her third-place finish at the Indianapolis 500 in May, the highest finish ever for a woman at the Brickyard.

Patrick plays it cool, saying, "If I wasn't a race car driver, trust me, nobody would be hiring this 5-foot, squatty little girl" for model shoots.

File the whole Danica Patrick experience, the glamour and the grease, under this description she gives of her own personality.

"From how I grew up, I was taught to be very determined and to work hard, to give it my all and not waste talent," says Patrick, who started out racing go-karts at the age of 10. "That's been my whole career, just being very determined to get what I want."

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