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Learning Curve

Danica Patrick is a magnet for media attention and sponsor dollars, but can the gold-plated NASCAR newbie live up to her own hype?

Author Mike Guy

THE RACE WEEK LEADING UP TO the Daytona 500 last February was a stressful one for Danica Patrick. She was facing her first outing as a full-time driver for NASCAR as well as her first time racing for the Sprint Cup at Daytona. The stakes were high, and the eyes of NASCAR Nation—a demographic that encamps at racetracks like Deadheads and hoists colorful banners displaying favorite drivers’ numbers and, often, sponsors—were fixed on this brash 5-foot-2 brunette in a GoDaddy.com firesuit.

Before this, Patrick had been making her living as the highest-profile racer in the IndyCar Series, open-wheel events that cling to the dwindling returns of a single race: the Indy 500. She had won only once in her ICS career, yet she was earning an estimated $12 million a year, mostly from endorsements.

Patrick’s earning potential in NASCAR, where generally you can take any number from the regular sports world and add a zero, seemed limitless. In 2011 she announced she’d be making the leap; in short order, her formerly tight-knit circle swelled to include two agents, two accountants, a publicist (who in turn had two assistants) and— because this is NASCAR—someone to drive her million-dollar motor home to each of the 50 or so races on her schedule.

Meanwhile, the motorati immediately started predicting that joining Brand Danica to NASCAR would create—pardon the cliché—a perfect storm of revenue and ratings. “It’s exactly what the sport needs right now,” Ed Kiernan, president of sports marketing agency Engine Shop, said at the time. “If she can perform on the track, it’ll propel her into another stratosphere. You’ll see her popping up in every endcap and aisle display at major retailers all around the country.”

But that was a big if.

When the Daytona 500 began, Patrick fell behind quickly, then crashed on the second lap. For most of the rest of the contest, she wallowed in the rear of the pack and struggled to stay out of the way of the far more experienced field. She looked overmatched, outgunned, even timid—basically the opposite of her off-track personality.

Immediately following the crash, Patrick had limped back into the pit in her #10 GoDaddy.com Chevy and unleashed a geyser of invective on her crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, about who had wrecked her and why. But in post-race interviews, she did a better job of holding her infamous temper in check. Sipping from a water bottle with the label torn off (she hadn’t yet landed the right drink sponsor, and no one in NASCAR does free branding), she gave an ESPN reporter a put-the-best-face-on-it postmortem. Still, you could tell Patrick was riled. It was a rocky start for NASCAR’s new star.

“I’m getting better at my temper,” Patrick, 30, tells Hemispheres. “But I’ll never be the perfect pitchman everyone wants to see.”

But that’s the thing. She is the perfect pitchman everyone wants to see, at least for the moment. As that ESPN camera lingered on the firesuit—emblazoned with logos from GoDaddy.com, Tissot watches and Peak antifreeze—it told the true, and truly lucrative, story of Danica Patrick: Brand Danica.

HERE ARE THE STATS FROM 2012. Racing for JR Motorsports (owned by the biggest name in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Patrick finished in the top 10 four times in 33 races in the Nationwide series, the cutthroat junior league beneath the elite Sprint Cup Series. In the Sprint Cup itself, she cracked the top 20 just twice in 11 races, despite driving a car owned by irascible defending champion Tony Stewart and powered by engines built in the shop of Hendrick Motorsports, the team that fields the sport’s heavyweights: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt. She overcooked turns, missed braking zones, collided with other cars and earned the distrust and at times ire—occasionally vocal, usually whispered—of some other drivers.

Yet Brand Danica roars on, undiminished. Patrick earns millions of dollars a year through sponsorships, merchandising and, to a lesser degree, race purses. As a paid ambassador of GoDaddy.com, the Internet hosting conglomerate, she has already appeared in 10 Super Bowl commercials—more than any other celebrity ever. According to the Davie-Brown Index, which rates a celebrity’s commercial value, she is the third most valuable person in motorsports, after Gordon and Earnhardt. And that’s going to be crucial in determining her longevity in the sport. Nowhere else in the sports world does money talk as loudly as in NASCAR.

Which is what makes Brand Danica so fascinating to behold, and so unprecedented. How long can someone continue to rank among the most lavishly paid athletes in her sport without actually succeeding at the sport itself? “I’m really not worried,” Patrick says of her 2012 performance. “This year has always been about finding my feet in a tough sport. I’m going to school on the crazy-good talent out there. Just watching Smoke [Tony Stewart] has been like getting a degree from Harvard.”

A NASCAR RACE CAR IS NOT really a race car at all, which is what makes the sport so tough. It has almost no downforce to keep it on the pavement; with 850 horses under the hood, it’s way overpowered; and the rest of the 43-car field is always bearing down on you.

Plus, the other drivers are, as Patrick says, crazy-good. Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart—just about any of the elite competitors out there, really—can break a single second down into a hundred pieces, take a spin on a 2-mile lap and determine precisely which adjustment to make to find speed.

“When you’re driving these particular cars, you’re really just barely keeping them in control,” Patrick says. “It’s an art more than a science or a sport. And you gotta have a heck of a lot of laps to know how to make good changes.”

Consequently, almost all the open-wheel racers who have attempted the transition to stock car racing in the past decade have flamed out or struggled mightily. The list is long and remarkably distinguished, but the most notable might be Dario Franchitti, three-time winner of the Indy 500 (and husband of Ashley Judd).

Will Patrick join their ranks? It depends on the yardstick with which success is measured. There are many great race car drivers in the U.S. who toil in obscure regional series that cost a lot and provide little in return but bragging rights. The difference between a driver’s success and failure hinges on talent, but also on the ability to “pull eyeballs,” as the marketing experts say.

That balance can be pushed only so far, though. Patrick has earned her wheel time and she’s more than earned the marketing money. But unless she finds a way to bring both games to the same level, she’ll eventually follow Franchitti back to Indianapolis.

For now, she’s taking it one race at a time. “I’m not trying to be the figurehead of the sport,” she says. “I leave that to Junior and Smoke. I’m just trying to get around the track a little bit faster each time.”

Mike Guy, whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, New York, Details and others, is a former editor in chief of Hemispheres.

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