Danica Patrick's possible impact hard to gauge

Johanna Long was 18 years old when she outraced NASCAR Sprint Cup regulars David Ragan, Landon Cassill and others on the way to winning the prestigious Snowball Derby in December 2010 at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. It was a big deal. Or at least, it should have been.

The Snowball Derby is one of the premier late-model stock-car races in the country, attracting some of the top drivers. Kyle Busch, the current Sprint Cup points leader, took time from his offseason to win it in 2009.

But after Long beat a field full of men -- including some highly regarded prospects such as Chase Elliott, Bill Elliott's son -- no fame or fortune followed. So now her family is footing the bill for Long to race part time in the Double-A level Camping World Truck Series, hoping for a sponsor and a chance to climb the ladder in NASCAR.

It's a familiar story. The purse strings rarely have opened for women coming up in NASCAR, a pervasive pink ceiling has held back advancement each time a prospect has come along. That's why some are embracing Danica Patrick's arrival full time in the Triple-A Nationwide Series next year, with a part-time Cup schedule in 2012 and a full-time Cup ride with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013.

Patrick, the popular IndyCar Series driver who announced the move last week, is the first to break through and put herself on a top team with equipment second to none in NASCAR.

Where so many others have tried and failed, Patrick is the one who made it.

"There are tons of young girls and women that are in the motorsports ranks competing at local levels and regional levels all over the United States," said Kelley Earnhardt, sister of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who negotiated the deal to bring Patrick to NASCAR full time with JR Motorsports next season.

"For Danica to be involved in the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup series gives those females a lot more hope that it can be done because we haven't had a lot of success with females in the sport throughout our years. This continues to give them hope that they can reach for their dreams and chase their dreams that it's not just a wasted effort and they have someone to look up to that has managed her brand and done well for herself so they have someone to kind of model themselves after."

But it's hard to know where Patrick's impact will be, or even how much of an impact she will have. Some believe it could be at the lowest levels of racing, the go-kart tracks where 7-year-olds learn to drive and future champions take their first laps. Will there be a new influx of young girls at those tracks, believing they can be the next Danica?

"You hope so," Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage said when asked if we would see the Danica effect on NASCAR in five to 10 years as women come up the system. "Until we have somebody to follow, somebody that looks like us and sounds like us, I don't know that we can expect to have women and other minorities truly give the time, pay attention to auto racing, the way we want them to. And so, it's certainly going to help us."

Perhaps the impact will be higher up the ladder in NASCAR, when those children become teenage prospects in need of sponsors. Patrick's presence already has helped prospects in the IndyCar Series.

"I think that she has provided an example that women are not only huge for marketing, but they also attract fans in a different way, so it's still a bit of a commodity," said Shannon McIntosh, a rookie in the lower-level open-wheel series USF2000, who was profiled on MTV's "Seventeen Magazine's 'Pretty Amazing' Contest" Tuesday night. She is a finalist to be on the cover of the October magazine. "I think that definitely had contributed to the sponsorship I gained."

Patrick already is the most popular driver in the IndyCar Series. If she can replicate that popularity in NASCAR, drawing fans and sponsors, perhaps there will be a trickle down to women working their way up in stock cars as well.

"She won't hurt," said longtime racing promoter and former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler, who famously brought Janet Guthrie to the World 600 in 1976 as a publicity stunt, making her the first woman to race on a superspeedway in NASCAR. Guthrie wound up competing in 33 races over four seasons, but never ran a full schedule as Patrick will.

"If I'm Harris Furniture store up in Illinois and I want to have a presence at the local short track and if there's a young female that's moving up that has won in lesser classes, I just well may give her a shot just because of the attention that Danica's gotten," Wheeler said. "Danica's gotten a lot more attention, a lot more, a tremendous amount of attention, compared to any normal race driver with the same record that she has. So that in itself is going to help a number of girls that are coming up to acquire sponsors."

Kelley Earnhardt said she believes there are sponsors waiting for women to prove themselves by winning consistently before investing. But it's hard to win and prove yourself when you don't have the sponsor backing.

Right now, the higher the ladder, the fewer the opportunities for women in NASCAR. Although the IndyCar Series has been a magnet for female drivers, there has never been a real breakthrough for women in NASCAR.

In 2011, only three women have competed in the top three national series -- Patrick, Jennifer Jo Cobb, who runs a partial Nationwide schedule, and Long in the Truck series. Cobb, 38, has struggled for years trying to break into NASCAR's upper levels. Long, now 19, is in her second year as a part-time Truck series driver.

There's not a single full-timer in the group, although Patrick will change that next year.

Lack of sponsorship has been the downfall of NASCAR's decade-long diversity effort, which has failed to deliver a driver into the national series. And it was the same for a small group of women who got a shot in the mid-2000s -- Shawna Robinson, Deborah Renshaw, Erin Crocker Evernham and Sarah Fisher among them -- before the plug was pulled on that diversity effort a year or two later.

"Most of the situations were, if they had put the girl in the car, they put her in the car based on hopefully getting more money," said Robinson, the last woman to race in the Cup series in 2002. "What was the patience level on that? Short."

Robinson had knocked on the door for years, hoping to get a top sponsorship in NASCAR. She raced at all three national levels, finally giving up after the 2005 season. She now runs an interior design company.

Erin Crocker let go of her dream, too. Five years ago, Crocker was the "it" girl in NASCAR when she was a development driver for Evernham Motorsports. She was touted as perhaps the top female prospect in the mid-2000s, the one who would break through. But the window on her career closed quickly when she lost sponsorship.

It all worked out in the end, of course. Crocker married team owner Ray Evernham and moved on with her life. But she said she still wonders what might have been.

"Is there a part of me that wishes I had gotten that great team and that great sponsor and stuck with me through thick and thin? Of course," Crocker Evernham said. "But I'm honestly glad to see a woman doing it, regardless of who it is, and I think that she by far is going to have, and has had, the best opportunity to succeed of any female before her, whether that's Shawna Robinson or myself or whoever. Given the equipment, the way that NASCAR's backing her, I just think she has the best opportunity for a woman to finally show we can do it."

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