INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Danica Patrick dragged into the room, her weary eyes hidden behind thick, black sunglasses.
A gaggle of reporters jockeyed for position around her chair, eagerly awaiting the annual State of Danica address. Maybe she would provide an endorsement in the presidential race. Or come up with a solution for those high gas prices. Or let us in on how she maintains a figure that graced the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, muscling into supermodel territory.
If one wanted to talk with pole-sitter Scott Dixon, step right up. It was just as easy getting an audience with past Indianapolis 500 winners Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon. More than a few of the 33 starters in Sunday's race sat alone in their chairs, probably wondering why they bothered to show up for their mandated media appearance.
Welcome to the Danica 500.
Much like Tiger Woods in golf or Mike Tyson in his boxing prime, Patrick is a sporting figure who casts a full-time eclipse over her rivals.
It doesn't matter if they win more races, claim more championships or prove themselves more talented. Danica Inc. is an unstoppable force, carrying a still-struggling sport on her 5-foot-2, 100-pound frame, straddling the line between sexuality and athleticism to create a brand that has something for everyone: little girls who dream of becoming racers themselves, moms who see her as a worthy role model, middle-aged men who know of little more than her racy photos.
"She's one of the hottest commodities in the country right now, and not just in motor sports,'' said Marty Reid, who'll call the race for ABC. "Everybody wants to know what's going to happen with her.''
Patrick's first career victory, in Japan last month, ratcheted up the hype even more. She's more than just a pretty face. She's also a pretty good driver.
"I didn't want her to become someone like Anna Kournikova,'' said Wheldon, referring to the retired tennis player who dominated the Internet with her stunning looks but never won a tournament. "I like that about Danica. She was able to go out there and drive to a win.''
Not that Patrick has ever shied away from showing her off-the-track attributes. Before she even made it to IndyCar, she posed in a men's magazine wearing little more than a bra and panties. She gained more exposure (so to speak) by donning a little white bikini for SI's swimsuit issue. She also did a highly provocative ad that was teased during this year's Super Bowl broadcast but only appeared in full on the Internet.
The 26-year-old Patrick doesn't worry about offending, and it's hard to argue with all the fame and fortune it has brought her.
"She is, by a big chunk, the highest-earning driver in Indy cars. By a big chunk,'' said racer-turned-broadcaster Eddie Cheever. "Do you think she's wrong for doing all that? I don't. Good for her.''
Just look where Patrick is in relation to another of the three women who will take the green flag Sunday.
Sarah Fisher was poised to be the first big female star in racing when she came along while still in her teens. But she's always driven for weaker teams and had to scrape together her own operation for this year's 500, finally landing a sponsor just three days before the race.
"At least I'm not going to have to live in a box,'' Fisher lamented. "I shouldn't lose my house over this.''
Why did Patrick become a pitchman's dream and land a ride with Andretti Green Racing, one of IndyCar's strongest teams, while Fisher struggled just to find enough money to race?
There are obvious differences in their backgrounds. Most notably, Patrick landed a financial backer in her teens, allowing her to go off to Europe for a career-boosting apprenticeship. She's clearly a more versatile driver than Fisher, who came up through the U.S. sprint car ranks with little road racing experience.
There are other contrasts, as well. Long before Danica mania, Fisher was selling herself as a wholesome Midwesterner, aligning herself with the Girl Scouts and reading books to schoolchildren. Contrast that with Patrick, perched provocatively over the grill of a car while wearing red leather boots - and little else.
Here's a news flash: Sex sells.
"We have different brands,'' Fisher said. "My brand is not as publicized as the other brand. I wanted to do girl-next-door type of stuff. But, if she's comfortable with it, that's her brand.''
Patrick makes no apologies for, at the very least, stretching the boundaries of good taste.
"Oh, no, I've never done anything I didn't feel very good about,'' she said. "Those things that push the limit a little bit more, those are things we talk about, as a group, as a family, as a business. But I don't ever do anything I'm uncomfortable with.
"I love doing stuff outside the car that gets across my femininity, that makes women look beautiful,'' Patrick continued. "To me, that's fun. I'm a very feminine person. I remember when I was a kid. Me, my sister and another girl would play, like, beauty shop. I guess that's what we called it. We would do each other's hair and makeup and take pictures. That's pretty much a photo shoot. I enjoyed doing that even when I wasn't getting anything out of it but a wad of pictures afterward.''
She's getting a lot more these days. Although IndyCar is on the upswing after merging with a rival series, there are still plenty of cars longing for stable sponsorship. Not Patrick, whose blue-and-black car is covered in advertising.
"All this stuff enhances the Danica brand,'' she said, sounding very much like a marketing professor. "Sure, it doesn't appeal to everyone. That's fine. But authenticity is the most important thing.''
Authentic is a rather odd word choice. Surely no one believes Patrick normally goes to the beach with her racing gear (she took along her helmet, firesuit and gloves to the SI bikini shoot). But perhaps she's referring to her willingness to do just about anything to enhance the Danica brand. She is authentic in her passion for that pursuit.
Just ask Bobby Rahal, who took a chance on Patrick in 2005. After only one season with the second-tier team, she bolted for a better deal with Andretti Green, one of the series' most successful, well-funded operations.
"She's ruthless,'' Cheever said, his tone reflecting admiration more than condemnation. "She left the team that brought her here. That was a big thing because she went to a team with better equipment.''
As for her driving skills, everyone concedes Patrick has improved steadily during her four years in the IndyCar series, though it's clear she'll never win everyone over. Some columnists and bloggers quickly seized on the fact that her victory in Japan was largely due to fuel strategy, though they blatantly failed to credit her for nursing better mileage out of her car in the waning laps.
Teammate Tony Kanaan said Patrick was eager to learn when she got to Andretti Green.
"She got the help she needed instead of just putting her in the car and letting her drive,'' Kanaan said. "I personally helped her with some things. She has talent, there's no doubt about it. It's just a matter of experience. She would be setting up the car in a way she thought was right. But I would say to her, 'Why don't you look at it this other way?'''
Look what happened at Indy. Patrick qualified fifth, putting her in the middle of the second row - ahead of her three teammates. Kanaan will start sixth, Marco Andretti seventh and Hideki Mutoh ninth.
"When you're on a team, the first thing they do is measure you against your teammates,'' Cheever said. "I'd say she's doing pretty good.''
She's doing pretty good outside the car, as well.
Although the hoopla that accompanied her fourth-place finish as a rookie was a bit overwhelming, Patrick was ready for it this year.
She knew she'd be the center of attention after her victory in Japan, and she's done everything she can to capitalize. If that means getting up at the crack of dawn to labor through two hours of TV interviews, patiently answering the same questions over and over again, bring it on.
"For me, it's an opportunity you just can't pass up,'' Patrick said. "Of course, we do say no a lot. I can't do everything. But you do have to do a lot of stuff for yourself and your brand, and also for your sponsors. I've been fortunate to be exposed to this side of things since I was 13 or 14 years old. This isn't weird to me. It is not nerve-racking.''
It does leave her drained at times, which explains why Patrick is a bit of a homebody when she does come across those rare moments that are all hers. But she's not about to pass up a chance to expose another potential fan - a.k.a another potential customer - to Danica Inc.
Just don't try to trip her up with a query about politics, or ask her to take a stand on some explosive social issue. Taking a cue from Woods, Patrick has decided it's best to shy away from subjects that might offend someone in her fan base.
"I have my own personal thoughts on some things. Some stuff, I don't really follow,'' she said. "I don't think there's any advantage whatsoever to talking about politics unless you feel so strongly about it and want to support it. Otherwise, you're just going to alienate a certain group of people.''
So, while Fisher was endorsing Hillary Clinton before the recent Indiana primary, Patrick had other things on her agenda.
"I didn't follow politics ever,'' she conceded. "It was the only class in school I really almost didn't pass, the government side of things. I don't understand the branches and whatever. I was never interested in it. I do think I'm more interested now because the candidates are doing things for the younger generation, like going on 'Saturday Night Live' and stuff.''
Patrick's fellow drivers have accepted she's always going to be the star of the show. They got their first sampling of it in '05, when she gobbled up the headlines even though someone else crossed the line first. (Quick, name the winner that year. Give up? It was Wheldon.)
"I really disagreed with it the first year,'' Kanaan said. "She finished fourth and got all the attention instead of Dan. Come on, he won the 500 from the 16th starting position.''
No one's complaining now, at least not publicly. Just as Woods has made everyone on the PGA Tour a bit richer, Patrick is doing the same thing for IndyCar.
"Her popularity has helped to grow the sport,'' Wheldon said. "We would not be as strong without her.''
Lady, start your engine.
You'll have 32 others along for the ride.