|espnW.com: More Sports|
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ella Gordon's father is somewhat of a big deal. A four-time Sprint Cup series champion, Jeff Gordon posed for pictures toward a bank of photographers in late February after qualifying second for the Daytona 500. But his 5-year-old daughter, standing nearby, had designs on a shot that didn't include him.
A few feet away, Danica Patrick responded to the posing requests of a larger throng of photographers clambering on the set of bleachers in Victory Lane. Long after Patrick became the first woman to win a Sprint Cup pole, the documentation from every conceivable angle continued, and little Ella awaited her turn.
An introduction was finally made, and Patrick, who has an easy magnetism with children, dipped to one knee and to eye level with the delighted Ms. Gordon. Patrick wrapped her arm around the beaming little girl's waist, and her mother, Ingrid Vandebosch, snapped a shot that appeared to make the little girl very happy indeed.
"When my daughter wants to meet somebody, whether it is Danica or Minnie Mouse, I'm going to do all I can to try to make that happen," Gordon said a few days later. "That tells you what kind of relevance and impact that they are making. I think it is fantastic."
Patrick's career and persona are defined in snapshot moments that sear impressions and harden opinions. Leading laps at the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2005. Arm resting on the shoulder-high trophy after winning in Japan in 2008. The swimsuit photo shoots, the television commercials.
And here was the latest, undeniably most important in her second full season in NASCAR and first in Sprint Cup.
There's no doubt other little girls were watching, girls with widening grins and big dreams untainted by cynicism, girls like Ella Gordon.
They have been watching for more than a decade now. Some have grown and followed the path that pioneers such as Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher trod before Patrick. Some just think all this is pretty cool.
Though Patrick is reticent to assess her career in gender terms, her influence can be felt far and wide. She has served, if not as the inspiration, as the benchmark for scores of little girls who want to go fast and win trophies.
For girls such as Ella Gordon, 5, Genevieve Johnson, 2½, and Anne Edwards, 3 -- daughters of drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, respectively -- Patrick could be an inspiration or simply a curiosity, a girl-power alternative to all the other men racing each week against their fathers.
Maybe they are drawn to Patrick from her appearances on Nickelodeon or in video games. Maybe, Patrick has mused, they relate to someone closer to their own height. But they absolutely relate.
Recounting being shown a video of two toddlers recognizing her from a magazine cover and reciting her name, Patrick admitted, "I don't know where it is coming from. ... I think it's an interesting thing, though. It's very flattering, and it's a fortunate situation to find myself in. I enjoy being inspirational to these kids. I'd love to know why."
The currency of curiosity at Daytona was lug nuts, said Patrick crew chief Tony Gibson. The garage window has slits through which fans can pass a paper and pen for autographs, and crew can pass things back. Gibson handed out scores of lug nuts bearing a small "10," emblematic of Patrick's car number, through the slits and into tiny hands.
"It's pretty amazing to see the little kids -- and the girls especially -- walk up with their Go Daddy stuff on and their hats," Gibson said. "All they want to do is get a glimpse and get a picture and be part of it."
John Force, a 15-time NHRA champion, quipped after his daughter Courtney won the season-opening Funny Car event with little notice, "I get that Danica got the pole is a big deal, but it is not like she delivered the baby Jesus."
But she helped deliver a massive television ratings bump for the Daytona 500 -- up 24 percent from last year -- again underscoring her drawing power as she made more history in becoming the first woman to lead a Sprint Cup race under green and finish as high as eighth.
Johnson and Edwards brought their daughters to see Patrick during Speedweeks. Edwards and Anne, wearing GoDaddy green-colored shoes, visited Patrick's motor coach, and Johnson brought Genevieve to see Patrick after qualifying.
Edwards told Patrick his daughter viewed her "like some mythical creature that doesn't exist.'"
"I think you can only lead by example, and I don't necessarily want my example to be to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy's world,'' Patrick said. "That is not what I'm trying to say, but if you have a talent for something, to not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different, not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to do the job let it be about what your potential is."
IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro was 16 when Patrick set gender records by leading laps and finishing fourth as a rookie in the 2005 Indy 500. Silvestro admittedly was inspired. So was Norwegian racing prospect Ayla Agren.
Agren was sitting in front of a computer at her family's home outside Oslo in 2003 when she realized the potential in this hobby of hers. Then 9 years old and a rapidly improving go-karter after just two seasons, Agren was beginning to aspire. The Indianapolis 500 was beginning to become "that big, big dream on a pink cloud."
"All of a sudden a girl in a driving suit pops up, and I'm like, 'Hmm, what's this?'" Agren told espnW. "And then when I saw she was driving [open wheel], I was like, 'Whoa, that's a big deal.'
"So when she [led the Indianapolis 500 in 2005], it was, like, an even bigger deal. So it was like, 'Wow, she can actually do it. So why couldn't other female drivers?' So that was, like, a big motivation not to give up. That was very, very good."
Agren, 19, attends college and works to further her racing career, half of the year in Norway, half in St. Petersburg, Fla. She will undertake her first season in the open-wheel developmental F1600 Series this season. She tested a USF2000 car last year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course for Andretti Autosport, which has won four titles and employed Patrick for her last five IndyCar seasons.
Agren grew up a fan of IndyCar and Formula One but said Patrick's presence in North America's open-wheel series made a possible future career "look more realistic than F1."
"[Patrick's success] wasn't the start of what I'm doing, but there's the facts that you can do this," Agren said. "I said, 'I can do this. Keep on pushing.'"
Whether Patrick is actually inspiring girls to race is more difficult to quantify. Marshall Fairman, owner of Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wis., where Patrick first began karting as a 10-year-old, said upward of 10 female drivers help comprise a typical 60-driver contingent for weekly sanctioned races.
Attributing an increase in female participants to Patrick is hard to do, he said, because female participation there has long been healthy. But attributing these young female karters' long-term goals to Patrick is easy, he added.
"All the girls know about Danica," he told espnW. "They are very enamored with her career, and they're all pretty positive they can have the same success in racing, too."
All the girls know about Danica. They are very enamored with her career, and they're all pretty positive they can have the same success in racing, too.” -- Marshall Fairman, owner Sugar River Raceway
World Karting Association communications director Keith Shampine said his organization does not track participation by gender but agreed that karting was popular with girls before Patrick became a mainstream star. Still, he says, "Danica's success and popularity has done nothing but enhance young females getting involved in kart racing."
St. James, one of nine women to start the Indianapolis 500, has tracked participation by gender since opening her foundation's driver development program in 1994. In motorsports with programs for children -- karting, quarter midgets, bandoleros, legends, NHRA Jr. Drag Racing -- the overall percentage of female participation has fluctuated between 10 to 50 percent, she said, with the NHRA platform "usually being toward the higher percentage."
While St. James is enthralled with the exploits of Patrick, whom she helped professionally when Danica was a teen, she said Patrick's career arc has created unrealistic expectations with many of her admirers.
"It makes sense that Danica's success has provided food for thought for the young female racers [or more likely their parents] to think or believe they can make it professionally," St. James told espnW in an email. "And many of the drivers who attended my program had unrealistic expectations about that -- thinking that just because they were female they were going to get sponsors, which of course is not at all true.
"The story that needs to be told is how successful Danica was in karting, and how successful a driver should be before moving to a higher level and having any expectations about preparing for a career in racing."
Not all children will aspire to careers as race car drivers. Many who do will be rebuffed by families lacking the considerable amounts of time or money needed just to dabble on weekends at places like Sugar River Raceway.
For many, Patrick is a fascination, a symbol and an accidental inspiration all the same, whether they race cars or go home after a day at the office. And that, Patrick said, is an unexpected and enriching part of all this.
"I've had the experience with mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, listening to them say the reason why they're here as a family today is because of me out there,'' she said. "Whether it brings the girls out, the guys out, whatever it is, I don't care. That's nice to hear. It's also nice to hear families talk about the fact that a little girl might say, 'But Mommy, Daddy, that's a girl out there.'
"Then they can have the conversation with their kid about [how] you can do anything you want, and being different doesn't by any means not allow you to follow your dreams. I love to think that conversation happens in households because of something I'm doing."