Defining Danica

DANICA PATRICK SHAKES HANDS like a man. It is a wince- inducing, finger-crushing, are-you-seriously-not-a-Marine kind of shake. "Hi [crunch], I'm Danica." Coming from someone who is 5-foot-2, 109 pounds and looks like a brunette Barbie doll, it's kind of like shaking hands with a lightning bolt. It makes you (okay, me) jump back a bit and go, "Ow! F--!," which is the point. There should be no surprise here. The woman drives race cars for a living; of course she has grip.

"So I don't always like to talk about racing," Danica says. This is honestly the second thing she says, right after hello. It is a warm spring night in Chicago, and Danica, who will be making her first NASCAR start at Talladega in a few days (where she'll finish 13th), is hoping for something "different," as she says. "It's much easier if we don't have to talk about the stuff I have to talk about every single weekend for, like, three days straight."

Danica has arrived with her husband, Paul Hospenthal, and her publicist, Haley Moore, at Graham Elliot -- a "bistronomic" restaurant in Chicago's Near North neighborhood. Restaurants, Danica says, are neutral ground for an interview. Her Scottsdale, Ariz., home -- a sand-color six-bedroom, eight-bath, 7,531-square-foot colossus, which reportedly has a wine cellar, movie theater, gymnasium, pool, guest cottage and seven-car garage -- is not. "I've read stories that are set in a celebrity's house, and you know where it is and what it looks like and what's inside it," she says, "and that's not something I want anyone to know." She shoots Haley a look that says, Protect the brand.

Okay, then, I guess we'll talk about food. Danica, who is seriously one of the smallest human beings I have ever met, adores food -- notably tiny portions of food on tiny tasting plates, which as a tiny person is her favorite way to eat. She once had something like 21 (or was it 22?) courses at the Napa Valley foodie mecca French Laundry, whose East Coast sister, Per Se, is probably the only Michelin-ranked American restaurant where Danica has wanted to go but failed to get a table. "It was two years ago, the end of the season, and it was for our anniversary," she says.

"And I couldn't get you in," says Haley, who I can tell is still kind of chagrined, even though getting into Per Se is about as hard as getting into, well, French Laundry, actually. "I really wanted to go there," Danica says, smiling at Haley, "but it was last minute."

Danica had no problem securing a last-minute reservation at Graham Elliot. She is friends with the owner as well as the sommelier, a dandyish guy named Rob, who comes to our table to inquire after our needs. "I say just bring us stuff," Danica says. Rob suggests the spring tasting menu with appropriate wine pairings. "This will be fun," Danica says.

She rarely gets to do this kind of thing in season, during which she travels nearly every week, often several times a week. She says that in the past week she was in Charlotte, Nashville, then Charlotte again, Richmond and Chicago, where she spent the weekend before leaving for Nashville again, then Miami and finally returning to Chicago last night. She "slept in" until 8 a.m., at which point she awoke to prepare for a multihour photo shoot at the Chicagoland Speedway, which she managed down to the last detail.

"I'm particular," she says. "I like things to be a certain way." She is particularly particular about her image -- the brand 00 and she loves photo shoots, she says, because she gets to direct the whole thing, including how and where she should stand and how her hair looks. It looks perfect, by the way -- long, dark tresses gently curled and cascading halfway down her back -- as does the rest of her. She's attired head to toe in labels: a sequined black sleeveless top by BCBG, black J Brand jeans and taupe Miu Miu stilettos with a rose-color Balenciaga bag on her arm. Her brown eyes are highlighted with just the right amount of makeup, her skin is flawless, her arms toned, and on her wrist is a chunky platinum watch that looks like a $6,000 Rolex.

Except that it's a $600 stainless steel Tissot. "One of my sponsors," Danica explains. That means she wears the watch all the time, including at the photo shoot. She also donned, or at least held, her William Rast sunglasses -- another sponsor, which also designed the blazer draped across her shoulders -- so she could be photographed with them as well. "Every single aspect of myself," she starts, and then stops. Whoops. What is she doing? Is she complaining? "Let me put it this way," she continues carefully. "It's all about trying to incorporate. It's about trying to weave the web and keep everyone happy. And of course," she smiles, "it's about giving value to those people so they continue to sponsor me."

At which point she exhales a tiny, almost inaudible, but definite, sigh.

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN debating the value of Danica Patrick for years, maybe even as long as she has been racing, which was seven years on the IndyCar circuit and three at NASCAR, including this, her first full season racing stock cars. At 30, she is the most famous female race car driver in the world and among the most famous female athletes overall, with a long list of superlatives that includes: the first woman to win an IndyCar race; the highest finish of any woman competing in the Indianapolis 500 (third in 2009); the highest finish of any woman in NASCAR (fourth in the Las Vegas Nationwide race last year); and the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing. According to Nielsen figures, she is 233 percent better known than the average motorsports athlete. (Last year, "Danica Patrick" was the most-searched-for athlete on Yahoo, period.) Within NASCAR, she was the eighth-highest earner in 2011, having made $12 million without racing full time. This year, with a full Nationwide schedule and 10 Sprint Cup races and the addition of Coke Zero to her portfolio of sponsors, she'll undoubtedly make even more.

But does she deserve it? This is one of the questions most often asked about Danica, who has yet to win a NASCAR race. In fact, before this season, she finished on the lead lap in only six of 25 races. In her first NNS season, in 2010, she had just one top-20 finish. The numbers are gradually improving, however. Through the first 11 Nationwide races this season, she finished in the top 20 six times, five of those on the lead lap.

Still, the prevailing criticism is that Danica has merely traded on her looks. No doubt she is the hot chick in motorsports, which she has been since bursting onto the scene in 2003 with an FHM spread titled "The Hottest Thing on Wheels Since Roller Girl." Since then, she has appeared in a Jay-Z video, made it onto numerous "hot" lists, including the Maxim Hot 100 (in 2010 she was No. 25), and has been featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue -- twice. Then there's Go Daddy, her primary sponsor, whose off-color ads have featured Danica showering with another woman and applying body paint to a scantily clad model. In the most memorable commercial, along with fitness guru Jillian Michaels, Danica wore a large, strategically placed Go Daddy sign and a pair of six-inch heels. Nothing else.

It's a savvy, if sexually exploitative, strategy that many women couldn't pull off -- or wouldn't want to. In a 2010 interview, Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, frowned on Danica's "provocative photos that will be floating around the web forever." In mid-May, Johanna Long, Danica's Nationwide competitor and a 20-year-old prodigy from Pensacola, Fla., blushed and vigorously shook her head when asked if she would ever pose in a bikini. But Danica, who makes frequent references to the appeal of her story -- the narrative of the gorgeous and feisty young woman competing in the rough-and-tumble male arena -- while at the same time insisting that she doesn't buy into that story -- "I've never seen myself as a 'girl driver.' I'm just a driver," she says, adding that the myriad bikini shots are "me just being me" -- has elevated this strategy to high art.

"A lot of people knew her as the Go Daddy girl before they realized she was a race car driver," says Eric Wright, president and executive director of research at Joyce Julius & Associates, a company that measures the value of corporate sponsorships. Today, 70 percent of U.S. consumers know who Danica Patrick is, including a hefty number who have never watched auto racing in their lives and may not even know she's a race car driver. "That level of marketing ability is a rare thing in sports," says Wright. "There are a handful of personalities who can do that type of thing."

Ever since her first IndyCar race, Danica has absorbed most of the spotlight, regardless of how she performs on the track. Meanwhile, established stars and champions such as Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon get a fraction of the attention. At this year's Daytona 500, Danica came in 38th, yet she (and her sponsors) received 37 minutes of airtime -- seventh highest among the competitors. By comparison, Juan Montoya finished 36th and had only 23 minutes of exposure (18th).

Her decision to leave the Indy circuit to focus on NASCAR full time was met with relief, even by her then-boss, Michael Andretti. "She brought a lot of good stuff, but she brought a lot of other things that really took away from the rest of our series," he said in a March 1 Associated Press story. "It became all about her. Even our racing was secondary. I mean, to talk about her finishing 12th in the field, it was taking away from our real stars."

NASCAR, though, has been more welcoming. Veteran driver Tony Stewart, who during the 2010 Daytona 500 quipped to ESPN that he couldn't believe he was actually getting interviewed -- joking that Danica, who was making her NASCAR debut, "must have quit for the day" -- hired Danica to race part time for his Cup team. It was a controversial move, akin to bringing up a Double-A player to the majors. The question for many was why. "Obviously, she's great at the marketing side," Stewart says, "but she's got talent behind the steering wheel. We would not have hired her if we didn't think she could do a good job driving the race cars. Having a partner like Go Daddy that came with her is a luxury."

Really? NASCAR depends on sponsorships. The symbiotic relationship of sponsor and driver is far more profound in stock car racing than in other forms of auto racing, let alone other sports. "Look at it this way," Wright explains. "Anna Kournikova cuts a deal with a watchmaker, and the money goes into her pocket. Danica Patrick cuts a deal with Coca-Cola, and that helps pay for the team. The money a NASCAR team needs to be competitive is staggering, so having the ability to bring in the sponsorship dollars is crucial because that's what the team -- and the league and the track itself -- needs."

All of this is a heavy burden. From the moment she started racing professionally, Danica says, she's been aware of the need to "create a situation for myself so I can have the same lifestyle after I quit racing as I've had during my career," which can be done only through investments and nonstop hawking of the brand. While she embraces the responsibility, it isn't hard to see why she sometimes gets defensive. "Do I use being a girl to my advantage? I use everything I can to my advantage," she says. "Maybe back in the day you didn't need to be the greatest looking [athlete] to be on TV and you didn't need to speak the best, but in this day and age, I think you need to be the package. You need to look the part for your sponsors, you need to be able to speak the part for the media and to big CEOs of big-name companies, and you have to do all of it. And I feel like that is one of my strengths. Do I get more attention than a lot of people who at times do better than me?" That would be yes, Danica suggests. "But it doesn't come without its costs, that's for sure. It doesn't come without its criticisms. It doesn't come without the overanalyzing of absolutely every word I say. I mean, I have to be careful what I say, how I say it, what I tweet. You have to be careful with everything you do. You can't have opinions; you can't alienate anyone."

At this point, Haley looks at her client and gives her a "please shut up now" smile.

When Danica isn't racing, or talking to sponsors or posing for photographs or being interviewed or tweeting or meeting with CEOs or doing any one of the many obligatory things she must do as a brand -- "I know what it's like to be owned," she says -- she is likely somewhere with Paul, her husband of six years.

Sandy-haired and dressed in jeans and a blue V-neck sweater, Paul, who at 47 is 17 years older than Danica, has sat quietly across the table throughout the dinner, like a guardian. Course after course has been served. Wine has been poured, and poured. Paul has remained mum. And then, "Do you like the lemon dots?" He speaks. A committed foodie like his wife, Paul directs our attention to the four perfectly round beads of lemon gel at the corners of our plates of poached Maine lobster. "Take a little of the wine afterward," he advises, lifting his glass of chardonnay. "It will bring out the citrus."

Paul, who has been derisively called Mr. Patrick and criticized for carrying his wife's helmet (ironically by Franchitti, aka "Mr. Ashley Judd"), is the antithesis of the studly racing dude. He's a physical therapist who met his wife in 2002, when she went to him with an injured hip. "I thought, It's a race car driver. It's got to be a guy, right?" he says. "So when my assistant brought her back to my office, it was so out of context. My first thought was, Is your boyfriend in the bathroom?"

"Can you imagine if he would have asked that question?" Danica says to Haley. They laugh. "We would have never gotten married if he'd started off that way. 'Where's your boyfriend at?' I'd be like, 'Are you kidding me?'"

SO THIS IS the part of the story when I come clean and say that I'm fairly new to racing, hence Danica's relief at not having to talk much about it. But I totally get this woman. She's a control freak -- or rather "particular" about what she wears and what she says and how she presents herself and whom she marries. She's also smart, driven, ambitious and fearless -- all traits of the successful modern businesswoman and, of course, traits most commonly associated with men. She is not, as some suggest, a bitch. She's nice, actually. You might want to get a pedicure with Danica, or maybe go shopping or take a yoga class with her, which is what she does all the time, she maintains, when she's at home in Scottsdale with her girlfriends. Just hanging out and being normal. But she's also a superstar, and that is not an accident. "Anyone who says I am where I am because I posed in a bikini is missing the point," she says.

No one achieves brand awareness without a strategy, and strategy is an integral part of the Danica Patrick story, dating from her childhood in Roscoe, Ill. Initially, racing was not her idea; that belonged to her sister, Brooke. She is two years younger than Danica, the kind of girl who was so eager to race anything that she drove her tricycle around the family driveway like a speed demon. When Brooke was 8, she announced she wanted to step it up a notch and race go-karts. Her father, TJ Patrick, was happy to oblige. TJ, the owner of a glass business, spent his off-hours racing cars, snowmobiles, motorcycles -- virtually anything on wheels, he says -- and he thought go-karting would make for a fun family activity. Danica, a self-described girlie girl (although "very competitive," she adds), went along "mostly because I didn't want to be left out." Her mother, Bev, even gave go-karting a try.

Brooke's romance with go-karts was short-lived. A tiny girl, even smaller than Danica, she was super fast on the straightaways, "but then she would get to the corner and literally people were driving over her," Danica says. "I don't think she liked that."

Danica, on the other hand, was a natural. "Right away, I noticed she was different," says her father. "She actually understood what was going on right from the start. She could read the tachometer and knew when she messed up a lap. I'd tell her to bring the motor in at a certain temperature, and she could have jumped the carburetor to keep it within those parameters. And she got faster every weekend." She was also intensely charismatic and, most of all, "she had the want," says TJ. "I said to myself way back then, She's probably going to change the world of motorsports."

So began Plan Danica. Within a year, she had hero cards, the flashy racing version of baseball cards, as well as T-shirts featuring her name and picture. Each weekend, family and friends would show up with the shirts and cards, and this marketing, coupled with the fact that she won a lot of races, led to sponsorships from the producers of go-kart engines or wheels, which in turn defrayed the cost of her travel. By the time she was 12, Danica had won a go-karting national championship, and TJ's fun family activity had morphed into a serious business in which the family packed up every Friday and traveled throughout the Midwest and, later, to other parts of the country. "It takes money to race, and from a very early age it was instilled in Danica that you need to keep people happy," says Brooke. "That's something she's always known. This is a passion, but it's also a business."

Another part of Plan Danica: no bad behavior. By allaccounts, she was a good kid, driven to please, her father most of all. "We didn't let her do much," TJ admits. There was no drinking, no drugs, no parties. "We really tried to drum it into her that she couldn't screw up. No sponsor is going to give you a million dollars if you're a bad kid."

Like any parent, TJ wanted to give his daughter every edge. On the suggestion of a sponsor, which also paid the fee, TJ enrolled Danica, then 14, in a 12-week Dale Carnegie course in public speaking in Rockford, Ill. As the youngest in the class by at least a decade, she balked at first and on one occasion bawled in protest, but she went, unfailingly, and blossomed into a polished pitchwoman.

She had plenty of practice. In 1997, Danica, by then seen as a racing prodigy, was featured along with teen cohorts Kournikova and figure skater Tara Lipinski in an hourlong ABC Sports biography titled The Making of a Champion. Then MTV descended on the Patrick home. "That's when I began to understand the story -- that I was a girl and a driver, and that was kind of unique," Danica says, recalling how the MTV camera crew spent a week following her around high school.

Not long after that, Danica was offered the chance to race Formula cars in England, the training ground for future Indy and Formula One drivers, by Texas oil heir and racing backer John Mecom Jr. Though Danica was only 16, neither she nor her parents hesitated. "Everyone says, 'How could you do that?'" says TJ. "My reply is, 'How could you not?' It's the Harvard or Yale of motorsports." Danica got her GED and moved (alone) to the sleepy town of Milton Keynes, about 45 miles outside London.

And she was miserable. Being an American, the only one racing in the Formula Vauxhall series, was tough enough. But an American girl? Brutal. Her teammates, all boys, shunned her. Her coaches and the team owner were remarkably uninterested in her success -- a new experience. "I remember one day specifically," she recalls. "I'd finished faster than everyone else, and the owner of the team got on the other guys like, 'The girl is the quickest? What the f-- are you doing? Get out and drive!'" Even today it stings. "It was honestly like he didn't think that could be possible, for a girl to do really well," she says. "And that's how it was the entire time."

These were the loneliest few years of her life. They were also the most instructive. "I came from a safe environment where everyone supported me, and I went over there trusting it would be no different," Danica says. "But England taught me to be unemotional" -- a common dig against her personality -- "and self-protective." And yet, "for as dire as it was at times, and as frustrating, I never thought it wasn't going to happen for me," she says. "I had too much to offer. And I thought if I got the right opportunities and right equipment and right people, I could be big. And if I could do the job on top of it, that would make a really kick-ass story."

"GOD IS SHE HOT," says a middle-aged lawyer under his breath. He's sweating profusely in the broiling Alabama sun as he watches Danica emerge from her screaming green Go Daddy car at Talladega. It's the day before the race, and he and I are among a throng milling around the Nationwide garage, waiting to get a few minutes with the superstar. Behind us is the track where drivers are going through their practice runs, cars roaring by at 200 mph. Danica, just back from her run, pulls off her helmet and, hair flowing, breezes over to meet the horde. It's a small horde -- the race isn't until tomorrow, don't forget -- but there are still more people gathered to see Danica than there are to see, say, Jeff Gordon, third on NASCAR's all-time wins list, who's there qualifying for Sunday's Sprint Cup race.

We have a scrum of photographers, some notebook- and pen-wielding reporters, two publicists, a car chief, a crew chief, about 15 other mechanic types and various and sundry people, like the lawyer, who have somehow finagled a hot pass that allows them access to the garages. There's also a gaggle of camera crews shoving microphones in Danica's face. She meets all of us, exhausted and sweating, with a smile. "Haley," she turns to her ever-helpful publicist, asking her to fetch her sunglasses. Haley takes off. "Go, go, go!" Danica exhorts. "It's for the sponsors!"

This is a small taste of what tomorrow will be, and every race afterward, just as it has been for the past few years -- the "Danica show." And it continues during a formal interview in the media center, where Danica appears having changed into jeans and a no-nonsense black short-sleeved Go Daddy shirt, hair in a ponytail and wearing gigantic multicolor Mardi Gras-style Talladega beads. She's ready to party. Or at least that's what she suggests to the reporters, mostly middle-aged men, who are smitten. Beads!

"I feel good!" she says in response to the evergreen question: How do you feel? She discusses the next day's race ("It'll be exciting") and her upcoming race at Darlington ("a big challenge") and her beads, which are "what make Talladega special." She says, "I love to see the fans and soak up the atmosphere," and she suggests, but doesn't fully detail, a foray to Talladega Boulevard, the inside-the-track midway that is the speedway's version of Bourbon Street. The reporters want to know where she got the beads. "I can't tell you that," she teases; in fact, Haley got them for her on the boulevard. They also want to know if she thinks much about her failures. "No," she answers bluntly. "I am focused on what's ahead."

Hers is not the only show at Talladega, of course. There are other drivers with fans and press -- though it will be Danica's photo, with beads, that will lead the next day's race coverage. Then there's Long, also new to NASCAR, a onetime go-kart champ and a woman, after all, who some people refer to as the anti-Danica, given her baby fat, propensity for jeans and T-shirts and legacy: She comes from a family of stock car racers. Long has much less, of everything, which is to say she has about as much as a lot of drivers out here. There are zero reporters hanging around her, no one waiting at her modest hauler, which features only a small cooler and granola bars for snacks. There's no army of lackeys, no "Team Johanna." Her publicist is her 23-year-old big sister, who's also named Haley.

Back at her hauler, Danica tells me she knows little about Long. "She's very young, right? She seems to be doing a good job in that she knows how to drive," she says. "And she's not trying to be girlie, like some do." While she is proudly girlie off the track, Danica frowns at the idea of getting dolled up for a race. "I can't imagine wearing a whole bunch of makeup when I'm sweating in the car," she says. "That's disgusting." As for Long, "she seems young and insecure. When I was her age, I was insecure too."

She hesitates for a second. "I should retract that," she says. "I was probably never all that insecure."

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.