It’s finally official: Danica Patrick is leaving the IndyCar playground and coming to NASCAR. (Granted, unless you’ve been living under a large boulder this summer, this is hardly a surprise.) She’ll run the full 2012 schedule in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports as well as a handful of Sprint Cup events for Stewart-Haas Racing, all with full sponsorship from GoDaddy.com, her current sponsor in IndyCar.
Danica is good for NASCAR.
Or rather, a promising young driver with full sponsorship who is willing to spend at least a year in the Nationwide ranks before moving up the ladder is good for NASCAR. Sponsors are few and far between, especially for Nationwide Series teams, so a driver who can bring one is a bonus. The series needs fully-funded teams to develop drivers. Who those drivers are is irrelevant. The series needs fully-funded teams to develop drivers. Period.
So on that level, Danica is good for NASCAR. What’s not good for anyone is Danicamania.
To be fair to Patrick, she didn’t ask for the hype. Actually, compared to her persona in IndyCar, her attitude in NASCAR thus far has been good. She knows she has a lot to learn, and she’s been trying to learn it. Whether that will change now that she’ll be full-time remains to be seen. But even her famous temper tantrums aren’t the problem here.
The real problem is the inordinate amount of attention Patrick receives from the media, and by extension, the fans. It’s not for the right reasons. Plain and simple, the hype is mostly due to the fact that Patrick is female, and a beautiful one at that.
Nothing against being female; after all, I am, too. Nothing against her looks either. Plenty of female fans choose their drivers based on how attractive they are, and certainly the men are entitled to that option as well should they so choose. Having a talented woman in the field each week is, in and of itself, good for the sport as well. No, the problem is that much of the hype centers on her gender and her looks. And that’s bad for everyone.
Most people will deny that the hype is over Patrick’s gender, but the fact is, there is no other explanation. If it was simply because Patrick was an IndyCar star, where was the uproar, the “mania” over Sam Hornish Jr. or Dario Franchitti when they first decided to test the NASCAR waters? Both Hornish and Franchitti are far more accomplished behind the wheel than Patrick is, with multiple series championships to stack against Patrick’s lone win.
Following Patrick’s announcement, NASCAR released a statement. “We are pleased Danica Patrick has chosen to race full time in NASCAR in 2012. She has demonstrated a strong desire to compete and NASCAR provides the best opportunity to race against the top drivers in the world with the largest and most loyal fan base in motorsports on a week-to-week basis.,” chirped the official press release from the sanctioning body. Now, perhaps I have a short memory, but I don’t recall the official press releases from NASCAR welcoming Hornish, Franchitti, or even Tony Stewart, IRL champions all.
And right there is where the hype is unwarranted. Patrick isn’t an IndyCar champion. She’s a decent, solid driver who has had the benefit of great equipment her entire career. To look at this from another angle: how ridiculous would most race fans think if the tables were turned and a NASCAR driver with a record similar to Patrick’s-say, Martin Truex, Jr.- were to defect to IndyCar and received this amount of media hype. Yeah, it’s that silly.
What this means is that there is no basis for the hype-other than Patrick’s gender. And considering how many female drivers have attempted NASCAR with much less fanfare, you could take that one step further and add that it’s because she’s an especially attractive member of that gender. And in the long run, the kind of attention Patrick is bringing to herself and her entrance into NASCAR might not be helpful to women trying to get into the sport. Brad Keselowski was particularly outspoken on his Twitter account after the announcement. “Her ascent up the ladder of the sport thru various branding ‘techniques’ (swimsuit ads etc.) only serves to undermine the future credibility of female racers who wish to make it based on skill, mental toughness and a never give up attitude,” said Keselowski. “That to me is wrong. Essentially she has opened a Pandora’s box for all female racers.”
He may not be far off. Like it or not, Patrick has used her sexuality to her advantage in all of this in a way that male racers have not done. That idea-that women have to be sexy and willing to flaunt it to get what they want-is damaging on a couple of levels. One, it could serve to keep talented women who don’t wish to promote themselves in the ways Patrick has out of the sport, as sponsors may expect the type of advertising that Patrick has done for GoDaddy.com. Second, it sends a very unhealthy message to young girls that they can and should use sexuality to get ahead. If Patrick had not made the sexy ads or posed, scantily-clad, across the hood of her car, would she be getting the media or sponsor attention she is getting now? Past history (with some very good female drivers; Chrissy Wallace comes to mind) suggests not.
That’s a terrible statement about our society and our sport: You can get where you want if you are willing to get half naked.
The other reason that Danicamania is harmful lies in the sheer amount of attention she garners every time she races. The networks have a tendency to cover Patrick, regardless of her performance, at the expense of other full-time Nationwide teams. There’s already a problem with the Nationwide drivers not getting enough coverage in their own series during races because ESPN favors the Sprint Cup drivers in their telecasts. While it’s arguable that at least Patrick will be a true Nationwide driver next year and therefore the coverage is justified, unless she’s either A) leading the race or B) racing someone in the pack for position, it’s just taking away from other Nationwide drivers who could be battling for the win or for position.
Those teams’ sponsors have just as much right to expect fair coverage as GoDaddy, even if their drivers aren’t sex symbols. And we all know that’s not going to happen.
The bottom line here is that a new driver with the funding to be competitive and move up the ranks is not bad for NASCAR. In fact, it’s very good for an ailing sport. But for that driver to be given more than her fair share of media attention for reasons that have less to do with her record and everything to do with her gender and sexuality isn’t good for anyone: not race fans, not NASCAR, not the other young women looking for a place in the sport. Probably not even for Patrick herself, as it severely undermines her credibility as a racecar driver.
By all means, Danica Patrick should be welcomed into the garage; as a racer she deserves a chance. But she (or any other driver) should not garner more credit than she deserves for the only thing that really matters in racing: what she’s done on the racetrack between the green flag and the checkers. And that’s something she still has to prove.
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