Image puts Danica Patrick on fast track

A risqué look can be a talented and ambitious woman's best marketing tool.

See Madonna, or Lady Gaga.

Or Danica Patrick.

So who's to fault Patrick for taking that route to celebrity and parlaying it into one of the best rides in NASCAR? With the announcement that she will ditch the IndyCar Series to drive full time in NASCAR beginning in 2012, Patrick appears to have set herself up with the best possible chance to succeed in the most popular and lucrative racing series in America. She will compete for her current team, owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the Triple-A level Nationwide Series next year, with reports of a deal for a seat in a Stewart-Haas Racing Sprint Cup car beginning in 2013, competing in top-notch Hendrick Motorsports equipment.

Patrick surely earned this shot by coming out of nowhere to become the first woman to lead laps at the Indianapolis 500 before finishing an impressive fourth in 2005, and by taking the checkered flag at the Indy Japan 300 in 2008, the first woman to win a major closed-course race. She also became the highest female finisher in a national-series race in NASCAR when she finished fourth in a Nationwide event at Las Vegas in March.

But just as significant, Patrick earned it by establishing herself as the most popular driver in the IndyCar Series for six years running. And that's really what's most important to the corporate sponsors who are the lifeblood of auto racing. Unlike in other major sports, where talent alone often dictates opportunity, corporate sponsors are drawn to popular drivers, and rides are given to those who can best be used to market to consumers. Dario Franchitti is a far more accomplished driver than Patrick, having won the Indy 500 twice and captured the IndyCar Series championship three times. But he's not headed back to NASCAR. When he tried to switch to NASCAR in 2008, he couldn't make it through the season because he didn't have sponsorship.

Talent alone isn't enough. As Patrick well knows.

So how could a race car driver with one victory and no championships in several years of competition become an icon? If you're Earnhardt Jr., with one win since 2006, you just keep parlaying that famous name and good-ol'-boy persona into an annual marketing bonanza. If you're a woman? You sell a little bit of your soul and a lot of your skin.

That's the bargain Patrick made when she decided to put on high heels and patent leather bikini bottoms and submit to provocative poses for photo shoots that turned her from a mere driver into a sex symbol. If driving put her on the map, it was Patrick's willingness to display her body for men's mags and to film racy television ads for sponsor that put her in the entertainment world's greater consciousness. These days, fans are just as likely to see her in heels and a low-cut dress on a red carpet as in a fire suit on pit road.

Patrick is more than a competitor. She's a star.

Now, that might not make her a favorite with some feminists, or those who live in some fantasy world where appearance doesn't matter and women are judged on their talent alone. Janet Guthrie, who overcame sexism in sports to become a well-known driver in the 1970s, is among those who have been critical of Patrick.

"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," Guthrie told The Washington Post last year on the eve of Patrick's stock car debut.

Yet it's also a valuable lesson for young women about the world we live in. Why deny it?

Yes, Patrick worked hard and sacrificed to develop her talent as a driver. But she wouldn't be the first woman to walk through the front door into NASCAR's elite garage, rather than begging at the back door for a chance, if she hadn't bared her midriff and most of the rest of her body for all to see.

Is she a sellout? Only if it goes against her nature.

And it appears Patrick is all-in with this marketing strategy that will make her even more rich and famous than she already is today.

Patrick is where she is because she dressed provocatively. Oh, yeah, and because she can drive a race car, too.

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