(NEW YORK) — Even though walking red carpets and accepting awards have become familiar territory for former supermodel Danica Patrick, she is most comfortable going 200 miles per hour with as many as 42 men chasing her down.
Patrick is the only female driver to ever race full time in NASCAR’s multi-million dollar Sprint Cup series, bringing attention to a sport with a predominantly-male fan base and firm Southern roots.
“My mom and my dad were probably responsible for why I race cars and why I like it,” Patrick said in an interview with ABC’s Nightline. “My dad used to race. They actually met at a racetrack.”
Following in the family footsteps, Patrick started racing at age 10 in Wisconsin, but said she never thought about being the only girl out there when she started out.
“It was really just about being the fastest driver,” she said.
Now 31, the racing pioneer has continued to grab headlines and national attention. Last weekend, she took on fellow driver David Gilliland, who she said tried to cut her off during their Sunday race at the Kansas Speedway.
“He tries to take me out every time,” Patrick said over her team radio. “Tell his spotter that I’m coming after him if he does it again. In fact, I might just do it right now.”
After the race, in which Gilliland finished 23rd and Patrick finished 25th, Gilliland responded in a statement, saying, tell her to “shut up and race.”
Being the representative female face in a male-dominated sport comes with daily pressure, but Patrick said she doesn’t let it bother her.
“I try to put my best face on,” she said. “I don’t think about it because there is nothing I can do but be myself. …I just see it as an opportunity to do something new and different, and perhaps show people what’s possible in this world.”
And with that opportunity comes $13 million in annual salary, almost 1 million Twitter followers and a very long list of sponsors. But that fame does not come without its critics. In nine years of professional racing in both the Indy Car Series and now NASCAR, Patrick has been in almost 200 races, but has won only once, leading some racing fans and fellow drivers to claim that she garners so much attention because she is a woman and is attractive.
But Patrick brushes off such notions.
“I would say that if that were the case that I doubt I would still be around,” she said. “On the other hand, on a day-to-day basis and throughout my career, yeah, that’s true too. It’s probably true that I get more attention because of how I look, but it’s also because of what I’m doing on the track.”
Being a successful woman in a man’s world is what’s pioneering, not necessarily winning, something Patrick takes to heart.
“It’s nice to be the first to do things, but I want to be remembered as a great driver,” she said. “I feel pressure for me as a driver to reach my potential, but it doesn’t have anything to do with being a girl. It just has to do with my potential as a driver.”
The widely popularized GoDaddy.com Super Bowl commercials, which helped turn Patrick into a national icon, did nothing to quell the debate, but they have also helped shape the Patrick brand — something she said she doesn’t regret.
“I’ve never had any issue with GoDaddy stuff, with photo shoots I’ve done,” Patrick said. “I am my own police officer with that stuff. Therefore I can say that I’m always in my window of comfort and these are just expressions of the different sides of my personality and being a female. I love to look pretty or sexy or any of those things.”
Winning or not, “Danicamania” is alive and well. The New York Times called her the “hook that draws sponsors back to the sport,” and with her recent success at the Daytona 500 — NASCAR’s Super Bowl — ratings increased 27 percent from last year, with 16.7 million viewers tuning in.
Among the racers at Daytona was Patrick’s 25-year-old boyfriend, fellow rookie NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Patrick went public with their relationship after filing for divorce from husband Paul Hospenthal in January. Her divorce was finalized last month.
Patrick said she and Stenhouse keep the trash talking to a minimum, but she will look for him on the track when they are racing together.
“I look for him, see how he’s doing, see where he’s at, looking on the scoring pylon,” she said. “I want to see him do well. Now, I want to beat him, because I want to beat everyone else too, but I’m happy for him when he does well.”
Patrick’s pit crew chief, Tony Gibson, who has been on the circuit for 30 years, working with some of the biggest names in NASCAR, including Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., said Patrick is good for the sport because she appeals to all ages.
“I’ve had older women come up and older men and young kids and teenagers and it’s a trip,” Gibson said. “I talked to a lot of the other crew members and drivers and they’re all like, ‘Our sport needs her right now. She is the best thing to come along for our sport in a very long time.'”
Patrick is currently 25th in the national standings as a rookie NASCAR driver, and many hope this racing pioneer can continue her legacy of firsts, including being the first female to win the pole at Daytona and the first female driver to race at the sport’s most dangerous track at Martinsville, and that she’ll continue to be a strong role model.
“What I try and emphasize with young kids is to just be yourself,” Patrick said. “Usually, or something that makes you the most different compared to everyone else perhaps is also what makes your most special attribute.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Brian Stelter, CNN
Adam Forsgren, EastIdahoNews.com columnist
Tom Kludt, CNN