Even if you are not an Indy racing fan, you've probably heard of Danica Patrick. She is the first woman to win an IndyCar race. She finished higher than any other woman in history at the Indianapolis 500. (She placed third in 2009.) Her debut tonight at the Daytona 500 marks only the third time in history a woman has competed at this season-opening event. Nielsen announced over the weekend that Patrick has become a household name, with a full 30 percent of the United States population recognizing who she is (most female athlete's recognition levels never climb higher than 9 percent). And to top it all off, she's also 233 percent more well-known than the average motorsports athlete.
In most cases, this level of notoriety would signal simply that a female athlete is at the top of her game (think The Williams Sisters) or has a really excellent publicist -- possibly both. But Patrick's racing arguably isn't the reason most people know her. Her fame has to derive in large part from the sexy ads for domain registry site GoDaddy. That means that while her positive impact on the racing world has been noted -- The New York Times has called Patrick the "hook that draws sponsors back to the sport" -- it's not so clear whether "The Danica Effect" has been good for women.
On the one hand, the GoDaddy ads are absolutely sexist. This year's Superbowl ad featured Patrick and fitness guru Jillian Michaels applying body paint to the nude body of model Natalia Velez -- essentially turning her skin into advertising space, a decal-covered sports car advertising Patrick's sponsor. The ad's tagline -- "get noticed," spoken over a slow-motion shot of the model's body -- offered lots of ammunition to those who accuse Patrick of using her looks to get attention that her performance on the track doesn't.
On the other hand, criticizing women for being too sexy seems like a cheap shot. Patrick is an adult and a professional who entered into a business relationship with GoDaddy. She's also the 8th highest-paid Nascar driver with an income of $12 million, according to Forbes. And the loudest criticism she's getting for sexing it up is coming from conservative men.
Last week, Fox 5 San Diego's Ross Shimabuku publicly apologized for some sexist on-air comments about the racing star. The local Fox station showed a clip of Patrick at NASCAR Media Day in which she complains about being called sexy and asks, "Is there any other word that you can use to describe me?" When the cameras cut back to Shimabuku, he commented: "Oh, I've got a few words... Starts with a 'B', and it's not 'beautiful.'"
At least one woman's reaction to her is more tolerant. Female Nascar driver Julia Landauer wrote in The Huffington Post:
Danica has used her driving skills and attractiveness, among other things, to achieve phenomenal success. While I think I would do some things differently than she did, there's no denying that Danica's a good racer who has marketed herself well and has worked very hard for her success ... The question becomes whether or not our society is willing and able to support women racers who embrace different images. It shouldn't be expected that every woman who strives to make it to the top ranks of racing needs to pose for the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated or film suggestive GoDaddy.com commercials.
Patrick herself is very aware of the disagreement about the source of her success. "It's a story, and everybody's trying to dig in it from different directions, creating their own expectations," she told the New York Times. "But it's really opinion, and I have one, too," she said: "I'm a girl, and so to say I can't use being a girl doesn't make any sense. In this world, there's so much competition out there that you have to use everything that you have to make sponsors happy, to attract them, to be unique, to be different."
What do you think? Is Danica Patrick being scrutinized unfairly for her sexy public image? Is she doing anything differently than a David Beckham or Michael Jordan did at the height of his fame?
Follow Jessica Pearce Rotondi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jessicarotondi