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Tom Keane

For Danica Patrick, sex and skill sell

Getty Images; Timothy Goodman for the Boston globe

The breaking news alert from Boston.com landed in my e-mail box: “Jimmie Johnson wins the Daytona 500.” Who cared about that? The real reason the alert was sent was in the next line: “Danica Patrick finishes eighth.”

Patrick has taken the racing world by storm. And she’s done so because she is, to be blunt, hot.

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“Hot” as in swimsuit model, sex symbol, and teenage lust hot. And Patrick has been unafraid — indeed, she’s been eager — to exploit it. She’s posed for FHM, Playboy (naughty bits covered), and the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. She’s been the focus of the smarmy GoDaddy ads that provoke outrage from conservatives and feminists alike. Search Google for her images and most feature her in some state of undress.

No question, it was her driving skills that got Patrick the pole position in the Daytona 500. But even as she’s been breaking barriers — will she finally put to rest the “woman driver” jibe? — she’s been seemingly indulging in the same stereotypes that for so long have bedeviled women. It’s a complicated mix — progressive and retrograde at the same time — made even more complicated by the sport itself: NASCAR.

NASCAR has its roots in Prohibition and moonshine. The “SC” stands for “stock car”: regular street cars that rumrunners would soup up to escape revenooers. Informal races among drivers were, in 1947, organized by driver Bill France into the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing — still a family-owned business. Over the years, NASCAR has changed a lot. Racing is now the second most-popular spectator sport in America. The money is much bigger, and those stock cars are no longer really stock (the old slogan, “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” is hence far less true).

But in one way it hasn’t changed: It’s decidedly regional, with devotees mostly rural or Southern, older, white, and male. New Englanders, for instance, are largely oblivious to the sport. NASCAR has one racetrack in the region — in Loudon, N.H. — and makes a pitiful showing in the local media. It’s not only demographics that hurt racing. The sport is insanely dull. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but those from the Northeast — or other urbanized areas — don’t seem to be interested in making the effort.

NASCAR might not care about these cold shoulders, except that it’s hurting. The number of spectators peaked in 2007 and has since fallen by more than 20 percent. Some blame goes to the economic crisis, but the association is starting to figure out that a limited fan base, boredom, and speculation that races are fixed really might be problems. Horse racing — another moribund sport — found that excitement over a possible Triple Crown was one of the few occasions it could break out to a wider audience. NASCAR is looking for the same sort of excitement, and hopes it has found it in Danica Patrick.

Patrick appeals to a different demographic: women, of course, and younger folks as well. Her elevated profile in national magazines and advertising puts racing in the minds of many who never before paid it attention. The storyline of a woman in a man’s world has appeal too (although Patrick is hardly the first woman driver in NASCAR). Advancing its own interests by busting stereotypes seems to be a smart way for NASCAR to go.

But still, there is the “hot” thing. Why can’t Patrick appeal just based on her merits?

That itself seems a stereotype, the same one that says smart women are mousy with black rimmed glasses. Moreover, it’s not one we apply to men. Tom Brady excels at his sport, but quite clearly the degree of attention he receives lies also in his cleft chin and chiseled cheekbones.

Patrick’s public persona rejects the notion that women can be beautiful or talented but not both. Not only does sex sell, but Patrick’s success suggests sex and skill combined may sell even more. I’m not sure she’ll save NASCAR — watching cars go around and around and around really is tiresome — but I admire the effort.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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