It was a tale of two cities, two countries and two completely different races. But those two checkered flags converged into one defining story, leaving fans both delighted and disappointed by the future of diversity in a sport that’s lacked it for far too long. The events were held outside the country, on opposite ends of the world; but considering the morals of the topic at hand, it’s ironic they were held so far apart.
Danica Patrick emerged from victory lane in Japan with a smile so wide you could almost see the monkey get thrown right off her back. It had been 50 starts for America’s most famous woman racer, but 49 empty weekends had also left her fighting for the label of the IRL’s most overrated driver in history. But some crafty pit strategy changed all that; Danica stretched every ounce of fuel to the finish, and her first checkered flag led to history in the making. The first woman ever to win a race in a major open-wheel series, Danica-mania was verified in one full swoop; Tiger Woods she’s not, but the trophy in her hands proved she’s not some flash in the pan either. On the heels of the Champ Car-IRL merger, her smiling face on top of the leaderboard gave the series instant momentum, as well as racing women like Lynn St. James and Janet Guthrie a reward for their years of sacrifice to blaze a trail to this point.
Down in Mexico City the next day, there was no such celebration for a woman; but then again, that party never had a chance. As the NASCAR Nationwide Series race got underway, there were a total of zero females in the starting lineup; instead, a conglomeration of Mexican heroes worked their way into the field, attempting to set a new path towards diversity in the wake of Juan Pablo Montoya‘s win on this soil the year before. That victory appeared to be a landmark step towards the addition of diversity in NASCAR; instead, the movement has stalled since then, and Montoya was nowhere to be found this year – opting for off-time instead of defending his title in the country that loves him unconditionally.
In his wake, there would be no such love from the Mexican contingent for life on circuit Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Legend Adrian Fernandez found this race so important, he flew in from Long Beach to compete; but by the halfway point he was a casualty of a rookie mistake by someone else. All around him, his compatriots were falling like flies; Jose Luis Ramirez had an electrical problem while teammate Antonio Perez had similar mechanical woes. Ruben Pardo was spun while running second, and Michel Jourdain Jr. also had a hand in that number – causing the second red flag after slamming into Kelly Bires on a restart. Needless to say, it wasn’t a day for celebration within the Latino community still searching to find its footing in NASCAR-land; Kyle Busch was the one in victory lane, whose sole diversity characteristic comes in the category of “over-aggression.”
Back in Japan, Helio Castroneves was busy celebrating second place, a move which cemented him atop the driver standings after three races this season. A native Brazilian, Castroneves had risen to perhaps the most popular open-wheel driver not named Danica in the offseason; not for his on-track success, but for his flashy dance moves during a winning stint on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. That’s left him the lovable leader of a Central and South American contingent in IRL that includes Vitor Meira and rookie Ernesto Viso.
Over in Mexico, NASCAR had strength in numbers but not in consistency; none of the Latino drivers in the field Sunday plans to run a full schedule in the series. In addition, its lone superstar representative in that arena – Montoya – hasn’t exactly caught on with the fanbase up in the lower 48. A recent survey by sports marketing agency Millsport found him last in a group of 36 Cup drivers in appeal, trust and endorsement. In a world where white males have dominated from the beginning of the sport’s existence, changing the culture is proving far more difficult than simply filling the field with diversity.
But the culture shock of what happened in Japan proved that the IRL has already gone a long ways towards changing that perception. Not only have women and minorities infiltrated their American series, but popularity has translated into performance; both Patrick and Castroneves will be favorites to win the Indy 500 next May, with a fleet of drivers behind them ready to take their place.
NASCAR? It’s still stuck in place, waiting for Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam or Albert Pujols to come out of the ground and let them take the next step. Perhaps for the right price they can get lucky, and Danica or Castroneves can be the next open-wheel sensations bought down the road.
But right now, they’re selling the IRL like never before; and as Mexico gently reminded us, it’s an area where NASCAR’s having trouble competing with the results.