Danica must maintain a delicate balance

Eyes were rolling and heads were shaking even before Danica Patrick formally announced Thursday she would race full time in NASCAR in 2012, driving for two of the sport’s most famous drivers/team owners, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart.

It’s a dream job for any driver, but for Patrick it will be a test of perception vs. results; that her dash backs up her flash.

Is it Danica “the gritty racer” or Danica “the national brand” that has earned her a prime ride in America’s most popular racing series?

Is she getting all this attention and opportunity because of her racing ability, or is it because she’s an attractive, highly marketable woman competing in a male-dominated sport?

Yes. And yes.

And maybe we should get used to it.

Judging by the resumes and press releases generated from several other up-and-coming female racers, Patrick’s career-long marketing plan of uber-exposure may be the new business model; where good looks and Internet hits are nearly as important in landing a plum job as is racking up top-10 finishes.

Even before Patrick, 29, was leading historic laps in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 or becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar race (2008), she did a racy photo shoot for FHM, a men’s lifestyle magazine. Later came a photo spread in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and you can’t tune in to a race on television without seeing her in suggestive commercials for her sponsor, GoDaddy.com.

When Canadian driver Maryeve Dufault, 29, made her NASCAR debut last week, the media were encouraged to check out her Web page and news release — which touted her background as a Miss Hawaiian Tropic winner, and offered up photos of her appearance in Maxim magazine and a resume that includes being a “Barker Beauty” on “The Price is Right” TV game show.

And … there were also details of her modest success competing in the developmental ARCA Series.

“I think sex sells, and NASCAR needs something like that,’’ explained 28-year-old Angela Cope, who along with twin sister Amber is trying to land a full-time ride alongside Patrick in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

“At this point in the game, you have to use whatever you’ve got to get your name out there. I don’t think you need to be (attractive), but by golly, it helps.

“Of course there are positives and negatives. It is a means to an end, and it’s all about getting the right people believing in the whole package.

“Our biggest fear is not being able to showcase our driving ability. In order for people to take us more seriously, we have to be in the seat full time. And in order to get in the seat full time, we need a corporate sponsor.’’

It’s an age-old conundrum for male and female drivers alike. But in the media-saturated, blog-heavy, Twitter-happy age we live in, there is plenty of exposure for the taking. So these young women are taking what they can get.

And why shouldn’t they?

“It’s like a double-edged sword,’’ said Lyn St. James, who competed in sports cars and IndyCar during the 1980s and 1990s and runs the Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation, which guides and assists young women racers.

“It all matters. The challenge is trying to orchestrate it in the right order. Winning races is still the most important thing for any up-and-coming driver.

“You can spend all your time (marketing yourself), but if you’re not winning races, you’re not going to be respected in the garage.’’

And there is the question of what kind of precedent it sets for the next generation of women trying to break into racing’s big leagues.

Shannon McIntosh, 22, is a highly regarded, young open-wheel talent who is trying to land major sponsorship and the good ride that comes along with it.

She is one of five finalists vying for the October cover of Seventeen magazine as part of its “Pretty Amazing Contest,” and next week she will be featured in an MTV docu-reality series about the project. Should McIntosh be picked for the cover, she would be the first athlete since Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill in 1976.

It’s a slightly different marketing strategy, but to McIntosh — who needs the prize money to fund her racing career — there’s a fine line between playing up your femininity and being too risqué.

She got a lesson early on in her racing career. She had secured a strong corporate sponsor and signed for a full season with a respected team — her car was even prepped for the first race — when her team owner (whom she chooses not to name) asked her to move in with him for the season.

She declined.

“I didn’t like the appearance of it and lost my whole season,’’ McIntosh said. “This is just an example that there is a line.’’

“You have to have that edge, whatever it is, that puts you above the competition,’’ she explained. “ As far as marketing goes, it’s important to show you are a woman, but there’s a fine line between being too risqué.

“I think it’s important for the sake of young girls looking up to us to set an example. They may be breaking the glass ceiling in other industries one day, and it’s important to set an example that you should be respected for your accomplishments, not just for taking your clothes off.’’

McIntosh isn’t alone. One of the IZOD IndyCar Series’ most popular former drivers, Sarah Fisher — who is now a team owner — along with current competitors Simona de Silvestro and Ana Beatriz all broke into the open-wheel ranks without the glamour shots and racy marketing campaigns.

St. James laughs when asked about her “glamour shots” during the 1980s, when some of her competitors were still pouting over women being allowed in the garage area.

“I was in my 30s when I got my first professional sponsor,’’ St. James said. “I look back at some of my early pictures, and it was obvious I didn’t care what I looked like at the track.

“But one of the first things I did when Ford (Motor Co.) signed me was do a photo shoot. I had my hair and makeup done, and the cover of the press kit was nothing more than a head shot of me. I was wearing a driver’s suit.

“I remember the media complaining in the press room that it was somehow an unfair advantage, that I was putting a so-called glamour shot on the cover to get attention.’’

That’s not to say that St. James — who has worked with Patrick, McIntosh and Fisher — doesn’t appreciate a polished, flashy marketing campaign. On Sept. 1, St. James’ foundation is honoring drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney, a pioneer in racing and marketing.

“You are in a professional sports entertainment business; that’s what racing is,’’ St. James said. “You need to appeal to fans and the television audience and the business of the sport, so you better look your best. That is professional polish.’’

And it’s hard to argue with the results.

“It’s an exciting time and good for Danica,’’ Cope said. “She’s going to definitely pave the way.’’