Is Danica Patrick in danger of becoming the Anna Kournikova of auto racing?
Danica Patrick has been thinking about Anna Kournikova. One season after she burst onto the auto racing scene as a rookie, Patrick has yet to win a race; and that has caused some to draw a comparison between the attractive driver and the Russian tennis beauty who failed to win a WTA singles title during her eight-year career but became a modeling and marketing sensation.
As she prepares this week for the Indianapolis 500 (Sunday, noon, ET, ABC), where she placed fourth last year, the extremely media-savvy Patrick apparently came to interview sessions prepared to address the comparison. The 24-year-old driver had at the ready the fact that Kournikova was once ranked second in the world in doubles. (Kournikova actually was ranked No. 1 at one point, but Patrick’s research is very impressive, nonetheless.) “Who can say they were No. 2 in the world at anything?” Patrick said. “Not very many people. You have to respect that. If she was just a girl in Russia, maybe she would have been pretty enough to be a model. But you wouldn’t have seen her in any advertising.”
We know that Anna was 0-for-122 in singles tournaments and that Sunday’s Indy 500 will be only Patrick’s 20th race, so perhaps it isn’t fair to associate her IndyCar record with Kournikova’s inability to win. But Patrick was ready this week with another statistic that clearly took someone some time to research.
Like Kournikova, Patrick has pulled in millions of dollars in endorsements, to the point that she out-earns everyone with whom she competes on the circuit. And as in Anna’s case, the range of her endorsements indicates that she appeals to a broad demographic.
And like Kournikova, who helped double the sales of a particular tennis string thanks to her photo on its packaging, Patrick sells. This year, she’s the only IRL driver with her own merchandise trailer, and more Danica-related items have been sold on eBay this year than for any other driver. Her popularity even challenges that of top NASCAR drivers. According to a Sports Business Journal poll, Patrick is almost as well known as Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart; and she is more liked than Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Patrick is her blunt honesty. Asked if she — or Kournikova, for that matter — deserves to be making millions in endorsements, Patrick replied with a big Why not? “There are plenty of people who are more famous or popular and earn more money in endorsements because they can, and they should,” Patrick said. “If they don’t, they’re just silly.”
The comparison is really rather silly. Patrick is easily a better race driver than Kournikova was a tennis player. Even playing just with the girls, Kournikova never won anything; Patrick is very competitive against the best drivers in the world.
And, frankly, while she’s a very attractive woman, Patrick’s not nearly as hot as Kournikova.
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