The Frontstretch: What's The Real Story: A New Perspective On Danica And More, From The Drag Strip by Amy Henderson -- Friday April 26, 2013

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What's The Real Story: A New Perspective On Danica And More, From The Drag Strip

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday April 26, 2013


While the NASCAR Cup and Truck Series were in Kansas last weekend, a show of a whole different kind was rolling into Charlotte. Just across Bruton Smith Boulevard from Charlotte Motor Speedway is zMAX Dragway, and the NHRA show was in town for Four-Wide Nationals.

It may have been just across the street, but it might as well have been a whole other world.

It was a lot to take in. There were new rules to learn, new interviews to seek, a whole new level of loud. A lot of lessons were packed into one weekend, and I came away richer in knowledge and understanding of a new form of racing. But there were also lessons about NASCAR to be learned, more from the contrast of the two sports than anything else.

Believe it or not, the first thing that came to my mind after spending some time in the pits was … how unfair are we being to Danica Patrick? By “we,” in this case, I’m talking mostly the media, but also of some fans … and the answer really gave me pause. Because really, it isn’t a very nice conclusion at all.

Danica Patrick may be in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons in her young career.

Are we piling on the pressure for Patrick to succeed simply because she’s a woman? Well, yes … and there’s also the pervading sense that she has had a lot of opportunities handed to her because of her gender, and well, to be blunt, she has. But the pressure heaped on her by the media is just ridiculous. No driver could possibly live up to the hype that surrounds Patrick. And the inescapable conclusion is that the hype is due to one thing, and one thing only: her gender.

Everywhere, we’re inundated with trivia: she’s the first female driver to race this track, first to qualify in such-and-such a spot, first to do this “thing.” It’s news that she’s dating a fellow driver because that hasn’t happened very often. Patrick is under the microscope practically 24/7 because she’s a girl. Not only that, but the media are putting the pressure on her for all those “first female” and “best by a female” records because we want a feel-good story.

People can say it’s because she’s a talented racer, but be honest: there are plenty of drivers who match her talent. You can say it’s because she’s an open-wheel star turned NASCAR driver, but that’s not it either, if we’re honest. After all, Sam Hornish, Jr., Dario Franchitti, and Juan Pablo Montoya were all much more accomplished open-wheel racers when they made the move, and they didn’t get this kind of attention.

Not only is Patrick being buried, under undue pressure there’s also a group of fans who actively dislike her because of the attention she receives. And you can’t really blame them; it’s a bitter pill to swallow when a driver is featured extensively in every corner of the media while many drivers of equal caliber barely get a mention. It’s not fair. But it’s also not fair to Patrick. If the media need her to succeed so badly just to get a positive story out of it, something’s wrong somewhere.

She didn’t ask for the attention. She’d probably prefer to learn the ins and outs of Cup racing somewhere other than under the microscope. She’s a rookie, and she hasn’t even raced a lot of these tracks in a Cup car yet. She should be out there logging laps, learning lines, practicing strategy. But she’s not allowed to simply do that, because she’s supposed to set records.

Meanwhile, take a walk through the pits at an NHRA event, and women are a part of every series. They’re there, and have been for years. Shirley Muldowney was winning races and titles in the NHRA’s Top Fuel division — its top class — in the 1970s. All in all, 51 women have driven in NHRA events over the years, and 13 of them have won. Women work on the race teams. They’re just “a part of the scene” in the pits. They aren’t followed by cameras every step they take; not even the most well-known female drag racers, Courtney and Brittany Force, get that kind of constant media attention. And I definitely got the impression that while they do get the extra scrutiny that any racing series’ biggest stars enjoy (or not), it isn’t simply because they’re women. If anything, it’s because their last name is Force, and their father is a 15-time NHRA champion. The better comparison here might be to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., not to Patrick.

I asked Brittany Force, who is a rookie in the Top Fuel division, if she felt extra pressure to perform because she’s a woman.

“I don’t see it like that; I’m (just) out there,” Force said. “The one thing about this sport is, we’re all out here because we have this passion for driving, for drag racing. It’s something we all love. Everybody has been so great out here. My whole year of testing, I had Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey, other Top Fuel drivers just come over and give me pointers and tips and offer that if I ever had any questions, I could always come ask them. Everybody has been really supportive, and I think that’s the great thing about the sport.”

Seeing the way the women in NHRA racing are treated (pretty much like anyone else; they’re not referred to as “female drivers,” but simply as “drivers”) made me wonder if the undue media pressure is keeping Patrick from performing to her full potential — she’s pulled in so many different directions on a race weekend that it has to take its toll. Maybe it’s time to just let her be another driver.

On a similar vein, the NHRA, from drivers to crews to fans, is a diverse group. The diversity among fans is noticeable compared to the NASCAR crowd. Among the drivers and crews, it’s similar to the way women are viewed … all competitors are simply racers. The diversity didn’t come from a carefully tailored and controlled program such as NASCAR has instituted. It just is. And perhaps that’s why it flourishes.

Race day atmosphere is pretty special in any form of racing. It’s almost like a carnival, with bright-colored booths vying for attention as they hawk their wares. Sponsors have interactive exhibits, where fans can spin a giant wheel or guess the number of hubcaps in a bin to win prizes. The smell of fried food competes with the smell of racing fuel to be the pervading scent. Everyone is having a good time.

The difference was that in the NHRA pits, the drivers are a part of it all. They spend time meeting and talking to fans and they look like they’re having almost as much fun as the fans are. They rarely sign a hurried autograph and walk away; many stopped to pose for pictures, even inviting the fans to come stand by their cars for a photo. Top Fuel champion Antron Brown not only went the extra mile, but he remembered several longtime fans from previous meetings and greeted them like old friends. All the while, he was having fun.

While it would be impossible to grant every fan at a NASCAR race that kind of access, it would be nice to see more drivers signing at their haulers — you used to see it a lot more in the not-too-distant past. And why not have fun with it while they’re there? Some drivers genuinely do; others, far too many look like they’d rather be boiled in oil.

Another thing that intrigued me was that yes, there are bigger teams with more money, but the cars are so on the edge there’s no guarantee that the big money will win. At 8,000 horsepower, a rich team’s engine can break as easily as a poor one’s. And you don’t hear fans grousing that this team is favored or this one only wins because they have the cash, or those guys cheat all the time. That kind of sniping isn’t good for racing.

Someone said to me that NHRA racing today is, in a lot of ways, the way NASCAR was 30 years ago. If that’s true, then how did NASCAR, the media, and even the fans go astray … and how does the NHRA keep from doing it? Maybe it’s because everyone, from media to fans, is looking for the next big story, the next bandwagon to jump on, the newest buzz words. For NHRA fans, the story is simple — it’s the race weekend itself, the drivers, and the roar of the cars on the racetrack. They let the racing be the story. And maybe that’s why, in its simplicity, it’s told so very well.

Perhaps it’s time for everyone to take a long, hard look at the way we view a NASCAR event and the things that surround it. Maybe it’s time to step back, stop pressuring drivers to be something they’re not, to stop looking for a story that isn’t there, to let the racing do the talking. Because while NASCAR and NHRA drag racing are two very different sports, they have one thing in common: the fans are there because they love racing. So why not just enjoy the show?

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04/26/2013 10:33 AM

That might be one of the best columns you have written.

04/26/2013 10:54 AM

While I respect your opinion, Amy, I think you’re also missing the point a bit.

I don’t believe that anyone is being unfair to PSPMW. Since coming to INDYCAR, she has actively tried to gain attention through various means of media, including talking about her “brand.” I have never seen her deflect attention, demand that people focus on her racing skill-or lack thereof-or pay attention to the other drivers in the series she’s in. I have never heard of Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna or Sebastian Vettel talk about their “brand.” Nor have I heard of, more gender specific, Shirley Muldowney, Angelle Sampey, Erica Enders-Stevens or the Force sisters talking about their “brand.”

Is is so ironic that her former boss, Michael Andretti, when PSPMW won the pole at Daytona, congratulated Go Daddy, but didn’t mention her by name? I don’t think so. You’re certainly entitled to change your opinion about her, but I don’t share your view. Bottom line, she’s not misunderstood or under too much pressure. She has demanded and asked for the attention, and has come nowhere close to being what her PR people have hyped her to be. And neither she nor any of her enablers/syncophants, etc, can now claim that “ooh, she’s under too much pressure, we should be nicer to her.” You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you hype yourself up, you better produce. And she never has, at any level, and never will. Well, that’s actually not entirely true. By the standards of what passes for celebrity these days, yes. By the standards of actual success, no, not now, not ever.

Bill B
04/26/2013 11:19 AM

So just stop writing about her until she does something noteworthy on the track.
You are right. Most of us don’t dislike her, we just dislike the fact that she gets jammed down our throats every week.
Please forward this article to Fox and DW in particular. Of course they won’t listen. Which means Danica will continue to get hyped and fans will continue to be annoyed.

Chip Revels
04/26/2013 11:51 AM

Put a driver in that # number 10 and you will see instant results. What are you talking about ? She is not a cracker jack wheel MAN ! Kurt Busch would have wins already on that team.

04/26/2013 12:14 PM

For just one race, I would like to see what Johanna Long would do in the #10. Just one race! Bet she would blow everyone’s doors off! Wait, Cup cars don’t have doors! So she would blow the whole darned bodies off! Then the headline would be “Girl Next Door” Upstages “Danicant”.

Kevin in SoCal
04/26/2013 12:59 PM

Smartest guy, I cant figure out your acronym PSPMW. I get Princess Sparkle Pony but whats the MW?
Amy, I dont think you’ve been around enough to know, but there IS fans grousing about NHRA teams only winning because they have the cash. A few years ago, it was Pro Stock teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line who were winning all the time. In Top Fuel, it was Tony Schumacher, until his crew chief Alan Johnson left for more money with the Arab racing team. Now Tony Schumacher’s team cant fall out of a tree on race day.

04/27/2013 11:20 AM

Race fans are sick of the media kissing her pampered little ass. Even with the best equipment she is barely competitive.

04/27/2013 01:05 PM

I agree that often the media tries to create a story when it isn’t there. For example in other sports, the Tim Tebow and that asian guy who played for the knicks. I understand this stuff sells but journalism should have better standards than to stoop to that level. For this exact reason, I lost interest watching espn because most of it is sensationalized non-stories.

Andy D
04/27/2013 05:33 PM

The women in NHRA have earned the respect of the fans by winning. Danica is having trouble with that side of the equation. While this article pretends to ask for less attention to DP, in truth it is just another article calling attention to her. Next week we’ll see a Junior story explaining that he’s proved himself already and doesn’t need a championship (but he’s running good enough that he may get one).

Kevin in SoCal – just a guess, but I think the MW portion of the acronym means “Media hoe”

04/28/2013 05:51 PM

I’ve been a motorsporrts journalist covering drag racing for almost 50 years, so I’ve seen the hype machine working at warp speed. Some of the responses here have referenced the over-hyping of drivers, usually women, and drag racing has suffered through that as well.

Erica Enders-Stevens was pushed relentlessly by the NHRA — and she not only wasn’t winning races, she wasn’t even qualifying. That didn’t seem to matter to those doing the pushing, but it did to the fans. There was a revolt, so to speak. The fans simply didn’t want to hear another word about Erica until she began delivering on the track, something she’s done — in spades.

That may be one reason why, when Courtney Force, Alexis DeJoria and other women began competing in top quality cars, they received their share of exposure, but weren’t overly pushed by the NHRA, who appeared to have learned their lessons from the Enders-Stevens backlash.

In the case of Ms. Patrick, she was the media anchor for the Indycar series. They had absolutely nothing else going for them, so every bit of effort was based around Danica, and you couldn’t blame them for doing it. Further, it’s apparent that she not only welcomed the attention, she exploited her sexuality at every possible turn. I am not faulting her for that, but it is a fact.

The difference in her Indycar and NASCAR situations is that in open wheel racing she was the only promotable name they had, period. That’s obviously not the case with NASCAR, where there are a number of recognizable names and faces, and the fan base is extensive.

The fault, I believe, is with the media. In this instance there are two “types” of media, one that’s familiar with racing and the other, which isn’t. If you check, most of the hype comes from media people who know little about racing, so they’re naturally impressed by Danica being the only woman, and when she does well, such as scoring the pole at Daytona, they make it a lot bigger than it really is. Note that the motorsports press was far more subdued in their coverage of Danica’s Daytona accomplishment than was the straight press.

The unfortunate truth is that the media should be collectively ashamed of themselves for the way they’ve continued to flit around Danica like moths to a flame while all but ignoring the impressive accomplishments women have made in drag racing.

Danica may have won the pole at Daytona, but she was a non-factor in that and every other race she’s competed in thus far. Whether she ever becomes a winner in NASCAR remains to be seen, but until she starts performing, maybe some of those media people should begin paying closer attention to the women in drag racing.

While Danica may have won the pole for Daytona, Courtney Force WON Funny Car at the Winternationals and Erica Enders-Stevens WON Pro Stock at the season’s second race in Phoenix. Winning ought to count for something, shouldn’t it?

Jon Asher
Senior Editor
Senior Editor
Drag Racing Action Magazine


Contact Amy Henderson

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