The fourth woman to race in the Indy 500 has been just as influential as the previous three. Probably more so, in some ways, along with being the most controversial. But let's start with the basics.
Danica Patrick started the Indianapolis 500 seven times and holds the record for the highest starting position by a woman (fourth) and the highest finish (third). She was also the first woman to lead laps in the iconic race, which she did in front of a crowd roaring its approval in 2005. Beyond Indy, where she always seemed to do well, to date she's also the only woman ever to win an IndyCar race.
After racing in IndyCar from 2005-2011, Danica moved to NASCAR in 2012, where she's still competing. Along the way, she capitalized on her growing popularity and started building a brand. She's been featured in a lot of high-profile advertisements for her sponsors (such as Go Daddy), she's posted in minimal clothing for Maxim, and she's dressed to the nines to attend a variety of awards shows.
Today, she's got an enormous social media following, and she's continuing to build her empire, including a wine label, a line of exercise wear, and a workout plan and cookbook coming next year. While her on-track results in NASCAR have been short of spectacular—barring her pole position at her first Daytona 500, which was amazing, given it was her first race in the series—she's gotten lots and lots of coverage as (often) the only woman in the field.
And that's where a lot of the controversy comes in.
"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... 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."
Danica takes a lot of criticism about posing in a bikini, about not performing on the track, about getting "too much" media attention, and more. But I think that underneath it all is a shrewd strategy to make as much hay as possible while the (media) sun shines. As she said above (it's a great article from 2012), she'll use everything she can to her advantage. That may make her less of a "pure racer" than some of the women I'm profiling in this series. But I'm not going to fault her for it, that's for sure.
(Photo from danicapatrick.com)