For those who have been caught up in the tidal wave of hype and ignored the facts after this weekend’s Nationwide race, Ms. Danica Patrick will be taking a four month break from taxicab racing to return to her day job wheeling glorified go-karts in IndyCar in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of fans who still enjoy the maggot-riddled corpse of the once proud premiere open-wheel racing series in America. (For the Danica-maniacs, Ms. Patrick will return in late June at NHIS.)
Now, I cannot imagine any driver, especially one in NASCAR’s AAA series, garnering as much attention as Ms. Patrick has in her three-race busman’s holiday. To rival that coverage, Dale Earnhardt the Original would have to rise from the dead, take five gold medals at the Olympics and return to win three straight races by more than a lap with Pamela Anderson tied naked to his hood. And even that might not be enough. Some blame the media for latching onto the story like a meth-addicted terrier grabbing onto a rat, but Ms. Patrick’s own marketing people have been positively Machiavellian in orchestrating the coverage of this comely brunette. Were she to have developed a yeast infection, the coverage might have overshadowed the Olympics.
Not all of Ms. Patrick’s invasion has been negative. Certainly, she has directed more eyeballs towards the flat screens during her brief sojourn into NASCAR racing. That can only be seen as a positive thing given the struggles of the second-tier series on TV over the last few seasons. Hopefully, some of those attracted to the sport by Mommy GoDaddy kept watching the races after she crashed out or went laps down, and saw that the Nationwide Series does, in fact, provide some compelling racing and interesting finishes. With Nationwide going against the Olympics, the attention was certainly welcome, keeping ratings relatively stable (unlike the Cup side). But the experiment was less successful in putting paying butts in seats, as witnessed by the weak crowds at the Vegas and Fontana Nationwide races – although I’m told Ms. Patrick was paid quite well (ludicrously well) to plant her butt in the seat of that racecar.
Patrick’s good finish in the ARCA race at Daytona set tongues to wagging. Neophytes to the sport might not have realized that given the team backing her in that event, she might as well have been hunting chipmunks in a nature preserve with an M16. But that good finish led some pundits to loudly predict a top-10 finish in that week’s Nationwide race – one that was added to her schedule quicker than most GoDaddy girls can disrobe.
To an extent, I was impressed by both Patrick’s poise in front of the camera and her maturity behind the wheel. If she wasn’t up to speed, at least she was able to calmly and rationally communicate to her crew chief Tony Eury Jr. what the car was doing and what she needed it to do to advance her position. Given Eury’s experience with another high-profile driver who could only curse the car and add such helpful insights as, “I couldn’t keep this car inside a 40-acre briar patch,” that had to be a relief for the team. It seemed eventually Ms. Patrick began to adopt the NASCAR car mindset. The car isn’t going to handle like an open-wheeler. It’s never going to be perfect, and that doesn’t matter. You just need to be better than the cars you’re trying to pass.
On the other hand, some lessons that seem obvious took Ms. Patrick some time to learn. First and foremost amongst them, when the yellow flag flies and those obnoxiously bright yellow caution lights start blinking around the track, it behooves a driver who wishes to finish the race to lift off the gas. In certain instances, such as when cars are spinning around you in a blinding cloud of smoke, a driver might even want to depress the pedal in the center which experienced drivers have learned deploys the brakes and causes the car to slow down. If one’s spotter is screaming “low, low, low” certainly that opinion should be taken into consideration given his vantage point, even if the final decision is still to drive down the middle of the track and hit stuff. Perhaps Ms. Patrick was waiting for a yellow light on her dash to illuminate, as it would in an IndyCar to start using some caution (and brakes.)
Again, in the IRL car a speed-limiting button that is pressed entering and leaving the pits keeps drivers from exceeding pit-road speed limits. In NASCAR, drivers have to use that mysterious brake pedal and keep an eye on the tach to calculate speed. Certainly there’s no reason for a car already laps down to speed entering or leaving pit road to advance her position.
Obviously, the most controversial part of Danica’s brief flirtation with stock car racing can’t be laid entirely at her feet. The media has overblown this would-be-story more completely out of proportion than the dangers of swine flu. And I, for one, am sick of it. There are other new teams and drivers (including some female drivers) who are also trying to make a name for themselves. Those drivers need some recognition, as do the sponsors who are supporting their fledgling efforts at big time racing. The fact their sponsors can’t afford incessant soft-core porn ads during commercial breaks to support their driver should not overshadow their effort and achievements. Frankly, I find those GoDaddy ads completely inappropriate for a sport that promotes itself as “family friendly.”
Hopefully, with Ms. Patrick returning to her full-time gig for a while, ESPN will be able to put some focus on other young drivers and full-time Nationwide teams trying to compete against the carpet-bagging Cup regulars, as the series needs those drivers and organization to survive and hopefully one day prosper again. If even a small percentage of those attracted to Saturday’s races by Ms. Patrick’s freak show continue tuning in, it’s important to hook them with other compelling stories of young people trying to make their way in a sport with a steep learning curve where expenses have far outstripped available sponsorship resources. When Mark Martin, the winningest driver ever in NASCAR’s AAA series, states on TV that he’d love to race some more Saturday events if he could just find sponsorship, you know something is badly askew akin to a cosmic rift in the universe. And I haven’t seen one of those since that night I left the Dead concert in Providence back in 1981.
The drive for diversity in NASCAR is a noble goal. Any child, no matter which gender, which race or what background they come from, should be able to dream of one day being a star driver in any NASCAR division. But we live in a very different world then the one an old guy like me grew up in. On my first trip to Atlanta I recall vividly (and with a good deal of shock and revulsion, having recently learned to read) signs that said restrooms were for whites only. Today, the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world is black. (And I know I’m wading into the swamp of politics here; half of you like the man and half of you loathe him, according to the polls, but hear me out.)
When I was growing up, the only place you saw working women was at the doctor’s office or the department store. Most women were expected to raise children and keep house. (Was there ever a more enslaving Christmas gift than the Betty Crocker EZ-Bake oven?) Today, a woman is speaker of the House of Representatives and seemingly raises nothing but Hell. The Supreme Court of the United States, arguably the most powerful and important branch of our government since it keeps the other two branches from trampling the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms our forefathers passed on to us, is composed not just of old white Protestant guys but Blacks, Hispanics, Women and Catholics. This is a lot better world than I experienced when I was four years old visiting Atlanta.
But in this brave new world we live in, it’s time for people to stop looking for a handout. It doesn’t matter if you were born in the ghetto or into abject poverty in the Appalachians, you can succeed if you work hard and believe in yourself. It’s been proven and documented. And it doesn’t matter if you can write your name in the snow or if you have to squat to pee; if you want to be a racecar driver, you can be. Early in NASCAR’s history, women routinely ran competitively in the big leagues. If the sport got to be a men’s club for a while, Ms. Patrick is strolling through doors women like Janet Guthrie kicked in decades ago. If I were a female (and that’s a frightening thought, for those who know what I look like) frankly I’d be insulted by the message Ms. Patrick and her sponsor are sending towards female drivers of the future.
Well Danica, you don’t have to put your makeup on and fix your hair up pretty to meet us tonight in NASCAR city. You don’t have to tear your shirt off at the slightest provocation to get a sponsor. If you want to race, race. Start in the hobby stocks, work your way up to the late models, and then the Truck and Nationwide series. And if you’re fast and you’re lucky, not only will you not see that hanging tree, Ms. Dalton, maybe you’ll make it to the big leagues. You don’t need breast enhancement surgery to make it. You just need to win some races. When you do, thank your sponsors, show some emotion and give us a bit of personality to let us know you weren’t biologically engineered in the Stepford Ladies Racing Labs.
For now, at least, female drivers are a bit of novelty in the sport. There was a time when drivers from the Northeast or Midwest were a bit of a novelty as well in a sport dominated by Southerners. They weren’t always welcome, but guys like Fred Lorenzen proved they could do the job back in the days of yore. So all this focus on Danica Patrick is nothing less than reverse discrimination, a really well-compensated affirmative action job.
It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Patrick’s NASCAR racing career to date hasn’t lived up to the hype. It might have been impossible for her to do so even if she won all three races. Three races isn’t enough time to decide if Danica can succeed in this form of racing, but my gut tells me racing NASCAR is like learning to swim. You’ve got to dive into the deep end, not dangle your toes in the water. So as long as Patrick wishes to keep her IRL gig and dabbles at NASCAR, I think she’s in for a nine-mile skid on a 10-mile ride. She’ll be back in June and we’ll see. In the meantime, heaven help any other rookie driver who tried to garner some attention by doing something meaningless like winning a race once she returns.