MIDDLEBURG, Va. -- Danica Patrick considered the shy student's question while the 150 or so girls in the room waited for the obvious answer.
What was her most unforgettable experience? Leading the Indianapolis 500, of course, or getting that historic victory in Motegi, Japan, or starting the Daytona 500 from the pole?
The girls all looked up.
"Probably being in a Jay Z music video and having lunch with Beyoncé," Patrick said, jerking the steering wheel a little to the left.
Hoots and hollers followed, and just like that, Patrick had the room. She'd made the connection she always makes with kids -- this time at the Foxcroft School, an exclusive girls boarding school that counts among its alums former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and actor Keshia Knight Pulliam, best known as Rudy on "The Cosby Show.''
As Patrrick explained, hip-hop superstar Jay Z was making a comeback album in 2006, and she and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had flown separately to Monte Carlo to film some fast-driving scenes for the single "Show Me What you Got." Pop superstar Beyonce, Jay Z's then-girlfriend, was there, and, boasted Patrick in a girls-talk kind of way, "we had lunch at this cliff-side restaurant and were drinking Bellinis."
"I mean it's, like, super fake," she continued, "like you can't believe that happened. And then we had dinner with them, too."
The girls were mesmerized -- not because they knew what a Bellini was or even because they had ever seen the 9-year-old music video, but because Patrick had reached them not as an untouchable celebrity or a race car driver from some unfamiliar world, but as one of them. She was a girl with a dream who made it happen. If she could do it, any of them could, too.
Patrick may be a work in progress as a NASCAR driver -- her naysayers are quick to point out what she hasn't done -- but she is a natural with kids. Anyone who knows only the side of her that's guarded, intense and fiery around the racetrack might be surprised to know there's an entirely different persona. Around kids, she's relaxed, engaging, introspective, playful and humble to the point of being humorously self-deprecating.
And the kids seem to worship her. To them, she's a pint-size pretty girl competing against all boys in one of the coolest sports around. And she's in TV commercials and travels the country with two cute dogs, Dallas and Ella, which she sometimes brings to appearances.
"She is very real with the kids," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR's senior vice president for marketing and industry services. "She gets down and interacts with them. You can see her smiling and asking them questions and being truly engaging with them versus kind of just sitting at a table. She asks them why they're there, why they're interested in NASCAR and really seems to make a personal connection."
A natural with kids
Patrick's popularity with kids dates to her seven years in the IndyCar series -- former CEO Randy Bernard says she drew more kids to the series than women -- and her backers have been leveraging it for years.
So many -- although not all -- of her kid-related appearances and autograph sessions have a sponsorship hook.
For instance, her visit last month to Foxcroft in the hills outside Washington was at the request of Nan Stuart, an alum whose company Code 3 Associates is a sponsor on teammate Tony Stewart's car. For longtime sponsor GoDaddy earlier in the year, Patrick addressed students at Cal Poly and visited the Arizona Call-A-Teen education center.
She's part of separate pushes by GoDaddy and NASCAR to get more girls enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs -- even though she's quick to acknowledge she dropped out of traditional school at 16 to race in England and is not math-inclined. ("Somebody has to figure out how to get those cars to stick to the track, and it's not me," she tells students in detailing how many engineers work on her race car.)
"Danica transcends sports and she has a huge social media following, and because she is such a natural with the kids, it all just works really well," said Elizabeth Driscoll, vice president of public relations for GoDaddy. "She did appearances with (former NASCAR driver) Mark Martin and (IndyCar driver) James Hinchclife with kids and they were great, but there's just something about Danica. She is a real icon, and kids pick up on that. It's a little pure."
Before the Michigan International Speedway race in June, Patrick and Chevrolet Program Manager Alba Colon, racing's most accomplished engineer, met with about 200 kids at the Lenawee County Boys and Girls Club. Colon provided the science lesson about drag and downforce with paper model cars that Patrick helped the kids color.
A young boy got to give Patrick a tour of the club before the program started, "which was pretty much the highlight of his 9-year-old life," said Carrie Hartley, the club's marketing and community relations manager.
"The cute moment came when Danica was in our cadet room for 6- to 9-year-old kids," Hartley continued. "Kids that age love to dress up. And Danica got in the closet we have there -- she's not very tall herself, so she was eye-level with some of these kids -- and she put on a red tutu. For the rest of the visit, she's wearing this red tutu. Even in interviews with several media outlets."
"It humbles me''
Patrick plays along and she doesn't seem to get embarrassed by kids' questions. In January, she was helping NASCAR launch its Hall of Fame Kids Club in Charlotte when a young visitor asked if she gets mad when her boyfriend, fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., wrecks her. "Did you come up with that question yourself?" Patrick replied, laughing. "Oh, dads."
In the physics lab at Foxcroft, she was shown a drone painted in GoDaddy green and orange and jokingly asked by Stuart what she could do if she could fly it over her car at the track. She could take out some of her rivals, Patrick said without missing a beat, "and I don't mean on a date."
Earlier, a questioner asked her what's the craziest thing a guy has said to her about being a female race driver. "Well," said Patrick without flinching, "if I start next to a girl, are we starting four abreast? Or things like 'don't catch her when it's that time of the month.' My reply is, 'you better not catch me at the wrong time of the month. It happens to be every time I race against you."
Some of Patrick's interactions with kids have only a faint sponsor or marketing connection, and some have none at all. For instance, Patrick has won the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards Favorite Female Athlete three times, and since the categories were changed in 2014, she has been nominated for Best Female Athlete twice. And she has been a presenter for the awards.
Even when her appearances are sponsorship-dictated, Patrick rarely, if ever, goes kicking and screaming. "Very early on, we decided to leverage her celebrity power for good," GoDaddy's Driscoll said. "And what a great thing it is that she's so amenable to that -- and, frankly, good at it."
Patrick is 33 and doesn't have children of her own, but says "that's a thing I think about more and more as I get older." She said she enjoys the interaction with children because "it grounds me a little. It humbles me and gives me perspective.''
Her biggest challenge in speaking to kids groups is "trying to figure out what to say. How did I get here, and why do I think the way I do, and how did that contribute to where I'm at? Because, obviously, I am different, but trying to reflect on your own life is more challenging than you think."
Making a difference
Patrick also does meet-and-greets at the track for Make A Wish Foundation, the organization that grants the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses, and she occasionally responds to private requests that come through proper channels.
That happened earlier this year when she was asked to make a video for a young girl with leukemia whose parents had hoped to bring her to the race at Richmond International Raceway to meet Patrick, but couldn't because the girl's immune system was too compromised. Patrick made a video for Katie Whatley, saying she was sorry she missed her, and sent her one of her popular stuffed "Dallas" dogs.
As it turned out, Katie's blood counts improved before the race, and her doctor gave her permission to go to the track.
Later, Katie's mother, Amanda Whatley, wrote Patrick's team about the experience:
"Another team's pit crew let us move up to the wall where Danica's car was waiting to start the race. To our surprise and Katie's amazement, Danica came over to say hi! It was so incredible. Katie has been telling everyone about her experience with Danica, and she takes 'Dallas' with her everywhere. He even stayed in the hospital with her all last week. Katie has been watching the races and wearing her Danica shirt to cheer her on."
Earlier this year, NASCAR launched NASCAR Acceleration Nation, a learning and entertainment platform for kids 8 to 12 with a STEM bent. There's a website with games and activities, a midway experience at select tracks and a classroom curriculum via a partnership with Scholastic. Classroom content focuses on the NASCAR's "Three Ds of Speed," drag, downforce and drafting, and some 10,000 schools nationwide participated in the program this year.
And Patrick, not surprisingly, was one of the first drivers NASCAR thought of to promote it.
"We use drivers in our Acceleration Nation footprint, either featuring them on the site or having them do kids' autograph sessions at the track," Gregory said. "All drivers seem to respond well to kids' autograph sessions, but Danica in particular does, and it's not just girls, but girls and boys, really respond to her."
NASCAR is well aware that the importance of connecting with kids and engaging them cannot be overstated. The future of every professional racing series depends on it. Kids don't follow many sports in the traditional way, and few have the attention span to watch a four-hour race from Dover or Pocono. But give them a rooting interest. ...
"If you have a personality that's magnetic like Danica's that brings those kids in and gives them a reason to watch -- even if it's after they may interact with her at a school or in an autograph session -- that's (invaluable)," Gregory said. "We know through our research that if fans choose a favorite driver, they do it fairly young, and so it's increasingly important for us to make sure fans at that age identify with a driver, and she is a fantastic role model."
For Patrick's it's getting her youngest fans to understand they are limited only by their own imaginations, self-confidence and willingness to sacrifice and work hard. It isn't about racing or celebrity, it's about the dream.
"I've been really blessed with a great career with great opportunities," she told the girls at Foxcroft. "I think there's never the perfect way to get to the top of anything; there's no set plan. There's no way you have to do it. And sometimes it might be better to do it a little different.
"But you have to just get going on your dream. You have to get started."