The young fan frowned as the man in the "Danica!" shirt stood on tip-toes, completely blocking her vantage of the spot she'd been blindly snapping photographs of for the past five minutes. She'd collected only several oddly framed shots of Miami-Dade sheriff's officers waiting outside Danica Patrick's transporter.
This ardent admirer was one cell in a massive clot of bodies jamming the Homestead-Miami Speedway paddock on Saturday, slowing Indy Racing League crews' prerace chores to less than a crawl.
"Bad driver comin' through. & I'm from Kansas,'' bellowed a crewman pushing a race car. The wiser ones just waited on the edge.
Patrick bobbed through sliding doors and onto a golf cart. Poof. Gone. And so was the crowd.
Patrick, 26, has established herself as the IRL's most reliable media generator and bullet train to the mainstream. And the league knows it. Her spunky persona and racy good looks have made her a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, commercial star, marketer's dream. She has won Nickelodeon kid's choice awards as favorite female athlete in a poll that drew nearly 87-million votes. Last year, Forbes magazine put her 97th on its list of the 100 most powerful athletes. Her performance before and during the 2005 Indianapolis 500 — setting gender records by starting and finishing fourth and leading the first laps by a woman — sent a national media storm swirling, to the delight of the attention-starved IRL and consternation of some of her peers.
Her resume: no wins in three full seasons, a best points finish of seventh last year. Not that racing has mattered in terms of publicity so far. So what happens when she finally wins? Bliss, for Patrick and the IRL.
"I think there will be lots of exciting things that will happen as a result,'' she said, "and I want as many people to benefit from that as possible. It's definitely a snowball effect.''
Just as NASCAR chairman Brian France conceded that Dale Earnhardt Jr. being successful is supremely important to stock car racing, Patrick securing that elusive first win is likely even more vital to the IRL. NASCAR has a squadron of well-known stars to fall back upon while the IRL clamors for middle America's notice like the kind Helio Castroneves' Dancing With the Stars performances provided.
"I was asked at the Motorsports Marketing Summit at the end of the year, 'give me your biggest wish for the year,' " recalled IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt, "and I said, 'Danica Patrick in Victory Lane.'
"That's an easy one.''
If that wish comes true, the IRL will truly gauge if it's ready to be big-league again (as it was before NASCAR's ascension) because Patrick will trigger a media supernova. And the time could be near, perhaps as near as Sunday's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where a new steering mechanism should help the 105-pound dervish better wheel her car through city streets. She finished a career-best second in the next-to-last race of the 2007 season on the Belle Isle (Detroit) road course.
"I think it's absolutely crucial for the series that she win one this year,'' said Peter DeLorenzo, an auto industry analyst and editor of autoextremist.com. "She and Marco Andretti and maybe Graham Rahal are the future stars. If she wins, yeah, huge.''
Patrick has proved a valuable commodity without a win. Good for her, though, more than the IRL.
Consider: According to Joyce Julius & Associates, which tracks sponsor value in terms of television exposure, she provided Motorola $8.1-million worth of air time for finishing eighth in the 2007 Indianapolis 500. That's roughly the cost to field a champion-caliber IndyCar program. Winner Dario Franchitti, $3.6-million.
Kevin Harvick produced $8.9-million for winning the 2007 Daytona 500. Anytime an Indycar driver can play in NASCAR's league, that's progress.
"She's off the chart,'' said Eric Wright, Joyce Julius vice president of research and development. "If she were to win, it would be excellent for her. It would be excellent for the league and those sponsors would be winning the lottery. I'm sure she would have a media tour that would be phenomenal for the (next) week to 10 days and beyond and every magazine and newspaper and all that.''
Patrick manages the benefits of her notoriety like an investment plan, parlaying fame and opportunity while this buzz lasts. But after waiting more than a decade (since she was racing go-karts) for a win in a points race, she admits she feels pressure to produce.
"I'm definitely feeling like at this point I have been patient. I feel like I have learned a lot, but I'm getting a little frustrated,'' she said. "Now is the time.''
And if this is the place & supernova.