Danica Patrick's pop culture star shines brightly

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In 2010, Danica Patrick was featured in "The Simpsons'' and "South Park.'' This fall she will become a video game character, launching fireballs at Sonic the Hedgehog.

Danica Patrick has been run over by Eric Cartman, enticed Homer Simpson and brawled with Marge. She's been name-dropped by Hannah Montana and lent her likeness and advice to the packaging of a Barbie doll. She's driven a getaway car in a Miranda Lambert country music video and raced Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jay-Z through the hills of Monaco in a rap short.

She's a red carpet staple and a frequent awards show presenter and winner, from the ESPYS to Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards. This fall Patrick will become a video game character, launching fireballs at Sonic the Hedgehog.

She is one Andy Warhol lithograph from pop culture royalty.

Beyond what she markets for her sponsors -- and she does that very well -- Patrick has quickly ingrained herself into American pop culture. With every cartoon version of herself she voices over for institutions such as "South Park'' and "The Simpsons,'' every time a gamer activates her avatar on a PlayStation 3, she goes deeper, particularly with the young, who are more likely to view female race car drivers as commonplace.

She will remain there as long as the Americana she has weaved is Googled, YouTubed or available on whatever follows Blu-ray. If she is to transcend sports and mainstream popularity into true lasting icon status, sports business and pop cultural observers say she will have to attain the one final attribute: on-track success.

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Danica Patrick is a staple on the red carpet, but if she is to continue to transcend sports and achieve lasting icon status, experts say she needs to have success on the track, too.

Everything is going well, currently, as Patrick, 30, is becoming a household name in more and more households.

She is eight years into her pop culture iconship, and though she is regularly dissected within motorsports, society at large has yet to demand more than her one victory at Motegi, Japan, in a 2008 IndyCar race.

Though Patrick's national profile has mushroomed since she finished fourth as a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, becoming the first female to lead the race, her pop culture zenith might be 2010, her first year as a part-time Nationwide Series driver. In that year she was featured prominently, not only in "The Simpsons" but in the "South Park" lampoon of NASCAR entitled "Poor and Stupid" in which she was disparaged verbally and run over while attempting to flee her flaming race car.

"You see that?" an unrepentant Cartman asks his crew chief. "Danica Patrick tried to get in my way. That pisses me off."

Patrick seemed bemused, despite being killed off.

"I think any time somebody takes the time to make fun of you is a compliment, so I was talking about it with [crew chief] Tony [Eury Jr.] on the truck, and some other guys and everybody found it hilarious, so I don't think anybody takes offense to that," Patrick said after the episode aired. "I think we all made history being on 'South Park.' It's pretty cool."

Many drivers have enjoyed some of the same individual mainstream success as Patrick. Several were featured in "South Park" episodes and have their own video game titles. Some even have racing greyhounds named after them, too -- the dog named Danica Patrick is retired but Danicas Go Daddy is a big winner in Florida. But few drivers have been able to meld all those successes into such a potent blast of pop culture fame.

"She really is a unique athlete and has diversified beyond her sport," said Professor David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute.

Patrick's video game embodiment will tussle alongside not only Sonic, but the lead character of the upcoming "Wreck-it Ralph" Disney animated film.

"Danica Patrick is one of the most popular athletes in the world and her accomplishments both on and off the track make her the perfect partner for Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed," Sega of America chief operating officer Masanao Maeda said in a release. "Danica's involvement showcases the broad appeal of this title."

Though Patrick has marketed her brand to adults by appearing in magazine photo shoots and ribald television commercials, and not shying away from the trappings of adulthood, she also has established credibility with parents. She's a two-time winner of Nickelodeon's favorite female athlete award, including this year.

Her appeal with children could be one of her main assets in remaining a mainstream player beyond her racing career. Amid males spelling out the letters of her name on painted chests, there are scores of families at races swathed in her neon green with black and orange accents. Girls and boys, mothers and fathers. Buying things.

"It's all about moderation," Carter said of appealing to different demographics, "because if you come across too focused on, say, your commitment to youth, or what have you, to the parents of those kids, they think you lack authenticity or maturity or whatever because you're just targeting the young demographic. But if you're too over-the-top in the other direction, you really run that risk.

"It's important to have authenticity, especially if you're trying to reach young people, who ultimately influence a lot of spending and influence parental decisions. But if parents don't like an athlete or don't like an entertainer, they may be a little more inclined to push back."

Patrick said her increased profile with children -- Cartman notwithstanding -- has been one of the more surprising aspects of her fame.

"More than anything I'm finding that kids are recognizing me more so than almost anyone," she said. "That's a really nice feeling. I'm not sure which channels they're watching that they see me, and possibly it's just with the races. But I always feel the most, sort of, proud when kids recognize who I am because I feel like with kids ... you can't make them watch anything in particular. They have their favorite shows they want to watch and their favorite things, and to sort of recognize an adult in the world, I feel, is a very flattering compliment."

Dr. Todd Boyd, of the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at USC, said there is no formula for attaining pop culture icon status, though timing and uniqueness of story are often crucial. He said most who have "transcended" have been male. Patrick, Boyd said, has been successful in remaining "linked with sport, while retaining a certain femininity/sexuality in her public persona" with other successful female "pop cultural icons" such as Laila Ali, Maria Sharapova and Lolo Jones.

"Of course, female athletes tend to be regarded differently than male athletes in our society," he said in an email. "In the case of someone like Danica Patrick, the fact that she is a woman deemed attractive by the media and by advertisers, along with successfully competing in an otherwise male-dominated sport helps to explain her distinct visibility.

"At some point, however, because it is sports, society demands that the women in question be victorious on a somewhat consistent basis in order to demonstrate that they are successful athletes, as opposed to celebrities simply using sport as a platform to reach other venues."

Patrick apparently has not reached that stage yet as she ventures into a new direction at NASCAR's highest levels.

There's still hope for that Warhol print, though.

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