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Danica Invades Granite State

Polarizing Patrick Garners Plenty of Reactions at Loudon

  • NASCAR driver Danica Patrick looks out from the garage during practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race, Friday, July 12, 2013 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

    NASCAR driver Danica Patrick looks out from the garage during practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race, Friday, July 12, 2013 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • NASCAR driver Danica Patrick looks over the engine as her crew does work on her car during practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race, Friday, July 12, 2013 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

    NASCAR driver Danica Patrick looks over the engine as her crew does work on her car during practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race, Friday, July 12, 2013 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

  • NASCAR driver Danica Patrick looks out from the garage during practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race, Friday, July 12, 2013 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
  • NASCAR driver Danica Patrick looks over the engine as her crew does work on her car during practice for the NASCAR New Hampshire Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 auto race, Friday, July 12, 2013 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

Loudon, n.h. — At New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Mikayla Doucette wore a racing T-shirt that displayed the name of a driver not competing this weekend in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: her own.

The 11-year-old from Plainville, Conn., started racing cars this year on a dirt track. As an aspiring female driver, Mikayla said Danica Patrick, the only female driver in the Sprint Cup series, was a role model for her.

“She’s just inspiring, to know she’s a girl racer out there,” Mikayla said.

But while Mikayla’s mother, Christine Doucette, agreed Patrick is talented, she said she also sees problems with Patrick’s marketing.

“I just wish they didn’t promote her the way they do,” Christine Doucette said. “It’s a little racy at times.”

Such varied opinions of Patrick are common with NASCAR fans. She has been a polarizing figure since her entry into the male-dominated sport, with some touting her as an incredible example for girls and others questioning her talent and place among the top drivers.

After spending two seasons racing in both the IndyCar series and in NASCAR races, Patrick switched to NASCAR full time in 2012, where she raced in the Nationwide Series and in selected Sprint Cup Series races. This season she is racing full-time in the Sprint Cup, which includes today’s Camping World RV Sales 301 race at the Loudon speedway.

“I think she could have used a little more time in the Nationwide Series,” racing fan Evan Pratt said Friday morning in the grandstands of the speedway. “She still needs experience.”

Pratt and Greg Brannan, both 18, came from Middleton, N.H., to watch the full weekend of events in Loudon. Brannan agreed Patrick may have moved up the ladder in NASCAR a little too quickly.

“I think she could be a decent driver in NASCAR, but obviously she was probably rushed into the Cup series because the sponsors are there and the money is there,” he said. “I think some people think too much of her, but a lot of people think too little of her.”

Her sex appeal was likely a factor in obtaining those sponsors and funds, Brannan said. Other drivers have shown comparable talent on the track but are unable to win sponsors to race in a quality car.

But regardless of any marketing advantages, Brannan said there is no denying her talent at the sport.

“She’s proven she can drive,” he said. “I don’t think she’s any worse than the guys in the back of the pack. I don’t think she’s the worst driver out there, so yeah I think she belongs here.”

Paul Norton, of Connecticut ,was at the Loudon speedway Friday for his work on the Whelen Modified Tour, whose drivers raced at the track yesterday. Norton said it was refreshing to see a woman involved in the sport.

“I think she’s a good driver, and she belongs in the sport,” he said. “She’s got to prove herself before I call her great driver though, I don’t think she’s there yet. But I don’t have a problem with a woman driver.”

Norton admitted Patrick may have an advantage over other drivers for gaining attention, but he believes it is only because she is a female in a predominantly male sport. As a result, she appeals easily to many fans, especially other women.

And most females agreed. Sarah Reynolds, 21, spent part of Friday morning by the car garages in the infield with her two sisters. Surrounded by drivers and crew members who were almost entirely male, Reynolds said she wanted to race cars as a young girl and may have felt differently about it if a woman like Patrick had been around.

“She must have a lot of confidence,” said Reynolds, who came from Middleton for the weekend. “I’m sure other girls don’t think they can race cars and it’s not a girl’s sport, but I think girls can do anything.”

Reynolds disagreed with the idea that Patrick has only advanced as far as she has because of her femininity or looks.

“I think it’s great she got the opportunity to be able to race at the next level,” she said. “Looks are always a good thing ... but she’s good with her fans and has a lot of sponsors and does a lot of charity stuff, so I’m guessing that gets her a long way too.”

Some fans do not think Patrick should receive scores of attention just for being a woman. Karen Simula, from Bristol, N.H., said her husband follows Patrick’s career, but she does not have much of an opinion on the driver.

“(All the attention) is because she’s a woman in the sport, but what about (former NASCAR driver) Shauna Robinson?” Simula said. “She never got half of the attention Danica gets.”

The attention also probably results from her success in open wheel racing, Simula said. But Patrick is only a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series this year and has not proven herself in the field yet.

Her companion, Steve Lehtomaki of Massachusetts, agreed it is too early for her to be as popular as she is.

“She does well, but I think she’s got a lot more attention than she deserves,” Lehtomaki said. “She’s good but until she proves herself, I think it’s more than she should have.”

But Patrick does stand alone as a well-known female driver currently in NASCAR, and her fans, especially young girls, are unlikely to be deterred by whether or not she performs well today as a result.

Hailee Maynard, of North Woodstock, M.H., is one such fan. Maynard, 10, has been watching NASCAR with her grandmother since she was a baby, and she even learned her colors and numbers from the race cars.

“I like her, and I like the green color of her car,” Hailee said. “Normally it’s just boys that (race cars), so sometimes they say you can’t do it as well because it’s a boy’s sport. But you should be able to.”

Mel Flanagan can be reached at 369-3321 or mflanagan@cmonitor.com.