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Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Danica Patrick in her element at bowl game

By Brant James

Writer Brant James and photographer Dan Anderson were granted behind-the-scenes access with NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, who served as grand marshal for the parade at the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

MOBILE, Ala. -- Across Dauphin Street from Cathedral Square, where a wedding party of attendants in cream and tasteful blues sprawled down the steps of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the bartender and the beer hall patron couldn't come to a consensus on this Danica Patrick.

The 20-ish guy in the hoodie, smoking and sipping Red Bull-and-something, brandished an image on his smartphone of Patrick in a bikini with a sports car, circa 2009.

"Close to an eight," he said.

The bartender disagreed. Sort of. There were some "nine or 10" elements in there, she said.

Back and forth it went, until the patron struck upon a point on which they both could agree. "Well," he said, "she's a race car driver. They're going to put her face on everything."

Alas, the bartender nodded.

In a dark bar, in the party district of a mid-sized Gulf Coast town, they had found consensus. And that was no small feat. In Patrick's role as one of the most recognizable characters in American sports and an ever-present figurehead for an ambitious sponsor, there is much to digest, something for anyone to ruminate over.

There is no aspect of her beyond debate, from top-10 finishes to close-to-an-eight photographs. She is an athlete, a spokesperson, a celebrity, a reluctant trailblazer.

She may not be everything to everyone, but she's enough to keep them talking. And it's always good to be in the conversation.

Working the room

Sam Jones appreciates a thorough working of a room. Mobile's first African-American mayor and a Democrat in a state that skews red -- or Crimson -- in politics as in football, the longtime Mobile pol understands how a handshake and a brief conversation can make allies of adversaries and fast friends of casual acquaintances.

Sitting by the cheese tray in the stately Malaga Inn on Saturday night, he studied Patrick's technique at a VIP reception kicking off GoDaddy.com's festivities for the bowl game it would sponsor in town the next evening. It was impressive, he said.

"I have never worked a crowd the way she works a crowd," laughed Jones, admitting Patrick could be useful in his re-election efforts this summer. "She knows how to talk to people. People really are attracted to her. She's a beautiful young lady, but one of the things about her is she is very, very intelligent, also. And I think she's personable. And quick on her feet. People are drawn to someone like that. The important thing is, no matter what kind of group she is with, she's comfortable with that."

A cup of coffee was helping her make it look easy, negating the effects of a 4 a.m. wakeup call in Los Angeles, where she had wrapped shooting of two Super Bowl ads. Freshly coifed and made up by a stylist, adorned in a leather top with sponsor logo, jeans and high heels, Patrick was whisked between encounters. She chatted, shook hands, connected, seemingly without leaving anyone feeling as if they had been part of a sponsor obligation.

"Being in a mood or being tired usually doesn't accomplish that," Patrick said. "Sometimes you're in a great mood and it's easy, and sometimes you cheer up a little and get moving. But for the most part when I'm doing something like this, everybody just wants to meet you and say 'hi.' It's very nice."

Kristen Williamson and Ashley Howell, 18-year-old college students from Mobile who parlayed family connections to get on the pass list, left their conversation with Patrick grinning and tapping on phones. Jones saw that, too.

"She moves around and talks to people, and people like to talk to her," he said. "She had a group of young ladies, little girls here, a while back, and I was following that conversation."

That would have been Molly, 9, and Maria, 11, daughters of Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir, whose alma mater would beat Kent State a day later in the bowl game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

"It was really cool talking to her," Molly said. "She's not like I thought she would be."

Molly was not so much a racing fan as a fan of someone she found "really, really nice" and "really, really pretty," who doesn't take any guff from the boys, she said. Her father was a fan of a powerful role model for his daughters.

"[Patrick] told them, 'Don't let people tell you what you can't do,'" Terry said. "Any time you have a female doing something different like that, I think it's extremely positive."

Children, but not exclusively girls, are drawn to her. Some marvel that she's not much taller, although her heel collection this weekend elevated Patrick above their heads.

"I usually make time for the kids more than anything," Patrick said. "Sometimes they're easier to talk to. They're young. Maybe they don't even know who I am. I don't know. I like to make small talk with the kids the most. But I'm happy to carry on a conversation with anybody. & It's easier to laugh a little and have a good time and get to know these people than it is to just stand there and take a picture and let them walk away."

MoonPies on parade

Mobile is the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States. Like a New Orleans in quaint miniature, the city is to be forgiven for its eccentricities concerning the festival period. So while beads remain the currency of the season and the many parades throughout it, denizens lining the GoDaddy.com Bowl Parade route Saturday stretched for MoonPies.

Baked in Chattanooga, Tenn., the provincial Southern confectionery somehow became a Mobile parade "throw" and eventually a symbol of the city's festivals. A 12-foot lighted replica of one is raised from a high-rise downtown on New Year's Eve in the city's answer to the Times Square ball drop.

Patrick, riding high on the back seat of a white 1963 Cadillac followed by a giant mechanized Greer's Market shopping cart and escorted by motorcycle police blaring country music from their bikes, said she was reminded of the power of the MoonPie on Saturday. Somewhere along the home stretch of Royal Street, with her bead stash expended, she found herself down to the end of the marshmallow cream concoction. And she wasted one, opening and feigning a bite -- 226 calories! -- before discarding it. Lesson learned.

"I realized at the end of it, when I ran out of MoonPies and beads, nobody really cheered for me anymore," she mused. "It's like at the racetrack when [Firehawk] is firing T-shirts out of a cannon, they're louder for the T-shirts than they are for the drivers."

Another one of the guys

Though record-keeping is often incomplete in such matters, this was likely the first time a female NASCAR driver had ever stood on the same spot and conversed with a female place-kicker of a college football team. But in keeping with Patrick's preference for distilling gender from discussions of her job, there was scant talk of such heady matters when she met Kent State sophomore April Goss in the corner of the end zone during pregame warm-ups Sunday.

"I don't ask about what it's like to be in a guy's world, because it doesn't really matter," Patrick said. "What her attitude is is what really matters. We talked about confidence a little bit, maybe not confidence amongst players, that wasn't a point -- confidence in her job, because if she does her job well, everyone will want her there. And the relationship, the unique relationship there that exists between a kicker and a football team will be easy if she's good at what she does."

That didn't mean Goss, a walk-on this spring, wasn't thinking about it. She has few opportunities to meet a kindred spirit who understands the daily routine of competing against males. This, she said, was special.

"Anyone can come out here and try to do it, but the respect is the hardest thing you have to earn," Goss said. "It's not easy, and it takes a lot, and I respect her to do that."

Though Patrick offered a few light-hearted pieces of advice for dealing with male counterparts, she mostly queried Goss about the training for and execution of driving a football through a pair of uprights.

"I'm always very curious about people's jobs and what it takes to do it," Patrick said, "so if that was [Chicago Bears kicker] Robbie Gould I was talking to, I'd ask the same thing."

Three steps back, Goss demonstrated, two to the side.

And afterward, a not-at-all-awkward embrace.

"That's the cool thing about female athletes," Patrick laughed, drawing in Goss. "We can hug."

Looking for a souvenir

Little tokens filled her hands wherever she went. The krewe member with the garter never got close enough for what might have been an awkward bestowing at the parade, but there was a yellow penalty flag from the officials before the game, then a flipping coin from the conference of the Big Ten officiating crew before Patrick conducted the ceremonial coin toss.

Her question about whether the Big Ten coin could have been used in a Tennessee game -- "That's the SEC," the official replied, politely -- revealed her admitted deficit in knowledge of intercollegiate conference alignments.

"Hey, I didn't go to college," she quipped. "Oregon?"

"That's the Pac-12," the official again politely replied.

Photographs were taken in trade for all these souvenirs, scores of them, and technology enabled them to be snapped at the most unexpected times and angles, like when a motorcycle cop sidled up beside Patrick during a lull in the parade at St. Michael and Royal, grinning as a fellow patrolman snapped a picture across the street.

A Kent State player somehow produced a tablet to accommodate a trainer's impromptu photo request minutes before the team ran onto the field. The Kent State mascot had it much easier, as did the shirtless, body-painted Arkansas State fans Patrick ran over to congratulate after presenting their team the winner's trophy.

The coaches in the Kent State press box were among the few uninterested parties. They hardly noticed late in the game when Patrick peeked over the partition separating their suites to see where the swearing was emanating from.

"I would rather take a picture than sign an autograph because the picture can't get sold if it's with a bunch of other people," she said, "but that autograph can, in this day and age of eBay. I'm happy to take a picture. It's a memory that they want to keep. And that's nice."

Kent State punter A.J. Rotella managed an even better souvenir. Though one of Patrick's few moments not captured by a fan's camera, it was seared for posterity into the consciousness of envious teammate Freddy Cortez.

Utilizing classic get-her-attention technique, Rotella tossed Patrick a football as she retook the field for a halftime scholarship presentation. She made the catch and managed a reasonable spiral in return -- better than she anticipated -- just as Cortez turned to see the whole scene conclude.

"No!" he exclaimed, holding out his hand to emphasize his next point. "I'm your biggest fan. I promise you, I am."

But that's another Danica Patrick debate for another time.