Archive for Thursday, July 6, 2006

Opinion: Danica more than a pretty face

July 6, 2006

OK, I'll admit it; I got caught up in Danica mania last year.

Danica Patrick's rise to Indy car fame and endorsement fortune was one of the sports stories that helped me pass the time while I sat in a wheelchair with little to do but watch TV.

So, this weekend, although I had never been into racing, I found myself excited about the prospect of covering the Indy car race and seeing Danica in person. I got my chance Friday, as me and about 35 other reporters (all of them male) gathered for a press conference with her.

My first glimpse of her was not earth-shattering. I didn't even notice that she'd entered the room until she was about halfway to the podium. She was far from the glamorous girl with her hair blowing in the wind that I had seen in Sports Illustrated a week ago. She was short and petite, wearing a very ordinary white T-shirt with Capri pants and sandals. Less supermodel than girl next door (if the girl next door happens to have a lead foot and lightning reflexes).

Still, there's an undeniable aura that beams out of Patrick's tiny frame. It comes from her shiny, jet-black hair, her slightly crooked grin and her friendly, approachable personality. There's no denying it, the girl's attractive. Which is why I sometimes feel guilty about rooting for her. I know there's a lot of guys who jumped on her bandwagon solely because of her looks and I don't want to be one of them. To me, sports should be about more than that; performance should be the first priority.

Earlier this summer I was at the Mo-Kan all-star softball game and heard some kids from Missouri chiding one of their friends because he was cheering for Kansas. "I'm just cheering for the team with the most hot girls on it," he explained. I remember being disgusted with the kid, wondering why he couldn't just appreciate those girls for their softball skills. But later I wondered, am I being just as shallow when I root for Danica?

I'd like to think that her situation is different. First of all, she's competing against a bunch of guys, so it's natural for me to be drawn to this tiny sprite of a girl holding her own in a man's world.

The other thing that Danica has going for her is that she's serious about her sport, unlike, say Anna Kournikova. Yes, she may get dolled up to do her commercials, but on the race track she's all business. You can see that from the steely gaze she gets when she puts on that racing suit, and also when she talks racing. On Friday she went on and on with intensity and eloquence about things like the Dallara chassis, short oval and cross winds, all of which went right over my head.

Danica cemented my support during that press conference with one statement, though. Although her team has fallen off recently, she should be on top of the world. She's still appearing in magazines like SI and FHM and still endorsing everything from Hostess snacks to Secret deodorant. But she's far from satisfied. Unlike Kournikova, she's got more important things to worry about than appearing in the next Enrique Iglesias music video.

"The racing is what makes me happy, and it's not going very well," Patrick said Friday.

Ah, that's why it's OK for me to like Danica even if I'm not big into racing. Yes she's attractive, but, above all else, she's a competitor.

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