Racing to the Point · Brett Poirier · Tuesday February 26, 2013
Right after Danica Patrick posted a lap of 196.434 mph to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500, a team in the Frontstretch fantasy league popped up named, “DanicasBackstretchTurboButton.”
I laughed — less because of how funny the name was, and more because I couldn’t believe somebody had even taken a shot at Patrick for winning the pole. That was only the beginning. Leading up to the 500, a story that a number of media outlets put out was whether or not Danica had an unfair advantage because of her weight.
So to win the pole at Daytona — a track the driver just flat-foots — she must’ve either had a turbo boost, probably part of some NASCAR conspiracy, or her car must’ve been a lot lighter than the competition?
This criticism got me thinking. Maybe NASCAR gave her a different size restrictor plate, maybe she is on Adderall, maybe there was a toxic chemical spill and she developed some type of super power that wills the car to move faster.
In any case, I’ve got to get to the bottom of it because there is no way a woman could drive a qualifying lap at Daytona as fast as a man, right?
Patrick has been put through the wringer in recent years for crashing cars, poorly executing intentional wrecks of other drivers (Landon Cassill), parking cars that still ran (Saturday’s Nationwide race) and earning just underwhelming results. But if we learned anything in the last nine days, she’s even going to hear it when achieving the smallest amount of success — and the Daytona pole is big media, but small potatoes compared to a trip to Victory Lane.
Meanwhile, if Patrick runs in the back, crashes or fails to switch ignitions, as she was accused of Saturday in the Nationwide Series it’s easy to ridicule her for being a sub-par driver. If she starts winning poles, or out-racing some of the big names in the sport, like she did at Daytona, then the conspiracy theories will come out of the woodwork.
She can’t win.
Let’s analyze the weight issue for a second. Patrick supposedly had an unfair advantage over NASCAR behemoths and former sumo wrestlers i.e. Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, etc. Patrick’s representatives say she weighs in at 110 pounds, about 20 to 40 pounds less then the aforementioned men.
“What’s a shame is everyone is pointing at Danica going, ‘Oh, she’s 40 pounds light,’” NASCAR Sprint Cup series director John Darby told ESPN. “But what about Mark Martin (125 pounds)? … There’s half of the field that doesn’t weigh more than horse jockeys anymore.”
Darby added, “When you’re talking about Martinsville, yeah, you can talk about an advantage to being lighter. Here, most of the cars are heavier than what they should be anyway. But once you get a little girl that kicks everybody’s ass, everyone is (questioning it).”
And Darby nailed it, that’s really what it comes down to — a much bigger issue. In 2013, many people still can’t get over a woman having success at the top of a sport against men. How many women really get the chance? Unlike football and basketball, etc., the car is the great equalizer in racing. If a woman is in good shape, and has the ability behind the wheel, she can compete against the men. Well, that’s as long as she can deal with all of the crap that comes with it — ignorant team members in the garage (how else would the weight story come to light?) and ignorant fans in the stands ready to bash every accomplishment.
Patrick isn’t the first woman to come along with driving ability. NASCAR has seen quite a few over the years, but most vanished quicker than a fart in the wind, or never had enough on-track success for anyone to care. Before Patrick, Janet Guthrie and Louise Smith were the only two women to make double-digit starts in the Cup Series. Many other women have attempted a full-time schedule, only to race in one or a handful.
Patrick is here to stay, though, and now a fan base that really hasn’t had to accept women in Cup racing has to deal with it.
Danica isn’t exactly Jackie Robinson, but she is a trailblazer of sorts. Fans aren’t throwing rocks at her car from the stands — at least, not yet (although, someone did throw a shoe on the track last year when she was leading the Nationwide race at Montreal.) She does, however, have a tall mountain to climb with a cold wind in her face.
On Sunday, she was up to the task. She became the first woman to lead a Sprint Cup race in 64 years and had the highest finish (eighth) ever for a woman in the Daytona 500. But one run isn’t going to quiet her critics (at least one will say it must’ve been the turbo button on the backstretch.)
And, unfortunately, she might not be able to quiet them for some time. Outside of the superspeedways, it is going to be a tough road for Patrick in Cup this season. She is yet to show she can race for top-20 finishes consistently at short or intermediate tracks, and hasn’t raced a Cup car at most venues. The struggles will come. So, fans will get plenty of chances to bash her, and as long as she’s a backmarker they won’t really have to deal with the larger issue at play — much like they didn’t with the women who came before her. After all, when you believe someone doesn’t belong, it’s much easier to point and laugh at his or her failures than it is to recognize the successes and accept him or her as an equal.
It’s when Danica figures this NASCAR thing out — and it may not be for a few years, if ever — that things will get really interesting. There are only so many conspiracy theories out there, and she has shown already that she won’t be dragged down — not even when people suggest the most ridiculous things, such as the backstretch turbo button.
The whole concept sounds like something from “Back to the Future” to me. If only Danica could sit in her silver DeLorean and exclaim, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
Then she could speed up, hit her backstretch turbo button, and bring a garage area and a fan base that is behind the times with her into the 21st century.
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