Danica Patrick definitely has earned this luxury, this million-dollar motor coach, this prime parking space on the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
And as she describes what it takes to succeed as a woman at NASCAR’s highest level, she clearly is describing herself.
“You gotta be the package, ” she says, curling into her seat while cradling her Belgian Malinois pup, Ella. “You have to be able to drive the car, you have to be able to look the part, to represent a company well, deliver a message, do an interview and resonate with fans.”
In the four years since she left a thriving IndyCar career to become the first woman to break the Sprint Cup barrier since 1995, Patrick, 34, still lacks a win, and can claim just six top-10 finishes in 130 starts going into Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
At the same time, she has become one of the richest, most influential and most popular drivers in the sport – thanks at least in part to posing for bikini photos early on, and to her promotion of an active and healthy lifestyle more recently.
Throughout her Sprint Cup career, Patrick hasn’t had to share the spotlight with another woman. But young drivers like Madeline Crane, Ali Kern, Julia Landauer and Shannon McIntosh hope she’ll need to do just that, someday soon – with one (or more) of them.
All four want to break through for who they are and what they can do on the track. Yet all four, predictably, are compared to and asked about Patrick all the time. Thus the question: Has Patrick’s path and her place in the sport made it easier or harder for women to follow in her footsteps?
‘Flashy at first’
The Sprint Cup is a very tough lug nut to crack. Whereas there are about 1, 700 NFL players and roughly 250 golfers on the PGA Tour, there currently are just 48 Sprint Cup drivers.
And while the ability to drive a stock car 210 mph in traffic is important – really, really important – it’s almost impossible to race at that level without deep-pocketed corporate sponsors or a vast personal fortune.
According to Adweek, a primary sponsorship in 2013 cost anywhere from $5 million to $35 million. Reports have estimated Nature’s Bakery’s deal with Stewart-Haas Racing, owner of Patrick’s car, at $54 million (the contract has been described only as “multiyear”).