Mass appeal

Mass appeal
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
June 8, 2005

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
ARLINGTON, Texas – He stood for four hours in a bowling alley parking lot amid the strip malls and humidity for one reason: to say something to Danica Patrick that might give him a Lloyd Christmas, one-in-a-million, so-you're-telling-me-there's-a-chance with racing's lead-footed heartbreaker.

And what happened when J.T. Smith finally got to the front of the autograph line?

"I gagged," the Fort Worth native said, shaking his head in disgust. "I totally blew it."

What was your line?

"You're doing good," he said. "She said, 'Thanks.'"

You're doing good?

"I know," Smith said, defeated. "I know."

Ol' J.T. wasn't the only one to leave disappointed from Wednesday's autograph session at the Fun Fest AMF Bowling Lanes, site of driver Sam Hornish Jr.'s charity bowling tournament. They came here by the hundreds for the chance to meet Patrick, who burst into the national consciousness last month with her stirring fourth-place finish at the Indy 500 – and her strikingly good looks.

Patrick, 23, it is universally agreed, is a boon for the Indy Racing League, which has fallen far behind NASCAR in popularity.

And while the progressive in all of us wishes the growth in fan interest simply were because of Patrick's racing ability, well, the reality is otherwise.

"She's hot," said Nestor Deluna of Lewisville, Texas, who is only 10.

How does a 10-year-old know what's hot?

"From the picture of her lying on the car in a bikini," said Nestor's buddy, 11-year-old Alex Curci of Patrick's much-downloaded FHM spread.

Yes, well, that would pretty much do it.

It wasn't just guys here, of course; there also was a healthy dose of "You Go Girl" power in the air. But it was mostly males who caused the line to form 11 hours early, ESPN Radio to set up a remote broadcast and a general circus atmosphere to break out under the hot sun.

Young, old, white collar, blue collar, no collar – they all were here. Seemingly every other male fan came armed with a pickup line. Most fell speechless in front of the petite brunette.

"They were mostly pretty quiet," laughed Patrick of her would-be suitors. "Pretty much they just said, 'Good luck.' I'm not sure if they were shy or anything."

Try dumbstruck.

All this excitement poses a challenge for Patrick. She is a racer first and foremost, and a skilled and confident one at that. Just a rookie, Patrick led the Indy 500 on three separate occasions. She wants to be known for her success, not as the Anna Kournikova of racing.

She didn't come here just to look good, she came to win Saturday's Bombardier Learjet 500 over at the Texas Motor Speedway.

But the key word in that sentence is "just."

Danica Patrick does not mind looking good. She didn't wear shorts, a small halter top and makeup by accident on Wednesday. If this is what it takes to shift the focus off NASCAR, then so be it.

"Being somewhat attractive and [creating] publicity is very useful for everyone, whether it is the series or sponsors or just myself," Patrick said. "I feel like everyone is watching, everyone wants the [first career] win. I promise you, though, no one wants the win more than me."

By any measure, interest in the IRL is skyrocketing. Patrick graced the cover of every major newspaper, Web site and even Sports Illustrated after Indianapolis. More than twice the number of media credentials have been issued for Saturday's race than last year. Ticket sales are through the roof. If she wins, Patrick quickly could become the most popular race car driver in America, Dale Jr. or no Dale Jr.

That would assure even more guys risking heat stroke in parking lots.

"I'm excited to see what she looks like," said Chris Ramey, 26, of Garland, Texas, as he waited in line. "Pictures are one thing, but in person is totally different."

And is she hot?

"Yeah, she's hot," he confirmed after. "I tried to talk to her but [the public relations people] just pushed you out of the way. She made a comment about my [DeSoto Fireman Academy] T-shirt. She noticed I was a fireman, but then they pushed me out."

Patrick is engaged and was rocking her ring. Not that anyone cared.

"Didn't you see the picture of her fiancé in Sports Illustrated?" Ramey said. "He looks like a dork."

But he's got the girl.

So does the IRL.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Thursday, Jun 9, 2005 4:50 pm, EDT

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