I've put it off and put it off as long as I could. I've remained very quiet about it. The time has come to break my silence. I am about to weigh in on the most controversial, most talked about subject in motorsports. And if you believe that, I've got some beach property in Tennessee I'll sell you real cheap.
Everytime I've tuned in to watch a race this year, I keep hearing about Danika Patrick. I hear about how she's great for the sport of Nascar. I hear about how people don't like her because she's a woman. I hear about how she's getting unfair criticism because she's a woman. I hear about how she's a woman. Right now I'd like to ask a question that's been bothering me for quite some time:
What criticism? What controversy? I haven't actually heard any that wasn't media manufactured.
I've scoured the Internet (OK, I looked for like five minutes, but five minutes is scouring, right?) and have only found a handful of sports writers openly criticizing her, but it wasn't because she was a woman. Here's one: Queen For A Day. The criticism here wasn't even about her but about the state of affairs at Indy, and while that may or may not be a valid point (I haven't paid attention to Indy in some years) it spoke nothing of Danika except to say she is a talented driver.
I did find one driver toss out some criticism about her being a woman. Robby Gordon claimed he wouldn't return to Indy because Danika has an unfair advantage as a woman because her car is lighter. Danika weighs in at about 100 pounds whereas Robby comes in at about 180. Of course given Robby's driving ability I've fairly certain he wouldn't be a match for Danika if he weighed 80 pounds. I wonder if he would complain if Mark Martin (135lbs) decided to race in the Indy 500? Aside from Robby Gordon's idiotic whining I haven't seen any actual disparaging remarks about Danika being a female driver.
Here's another comment I've been hearing: Danika's just a PR move for Nascar. Yeah, so? Nascar has been openly trying to find a talented female driver for years, it's a valid point but it doesn't take away from her talent. Part of the issue I think comes from the fact Danika is the first female driver to really get the support of Nascar.
Sara Christian was actually the first female driver in Nascar history, back in 1949 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. She qualified 13th. Her second race was at the Daytona road course that year and the 28 car field included two other women, Ethel Mobley and Louise Smith. As a side note, Christian's husband, Frank also ran in that race. Christian's fourth race was at Langhorne Speedway where she finished sixth. Mobley and Smith also competed in that race.
1977 again saw three women in the same race, Janet Guthrie, Lella Lombardi, and Christine Beckers. Guthrie, a former aerospace engineer, was actually the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. She finished 15th at the World 600, now the Coca-Cola 600, at Charlotte. In her first Daytona 500, she finished 12th on six cylinders after blowing an engine ten laps to go. Not bad for any driver. Oddly enough, one of the old criticisms about female drivers (by old I mean back in the early 70's when Guthrie first competed) was that women are too emotional for Nascar. I haven't actually heard that comment from anyone but the feminists who like to throw it up as men just being derogatory. Guthrie actually commented, not on the subject of "female emotions" but on drivers in general, "What I'm trying to emphasize is that a driver is primarily a person, not a man or a woman, and a great deal of driving is mental. You can not afford to get angry behind the wheel. A good driver needs emotional detachment, concentration , good judgment, and desire."
With the possible exception of The Intimidator himself Dale Earnhardt, Guthrie might actually be the only driver in Nascar history to exhibit those qualities (I'm looking at you Robby Gordon) .
None of those drivers attempted a complete Nascar season, nor, in my opinion, did they have the support of Nascar. Back in the days of Christian and Guthrie a drivers team was still a big deal, but it didn't make half the difference it does now. In order to make it in Nascar today, regardless of skill, you have to have money and the right builders and crew. The last female driver that sticks out in my mind was Shawna Robinson who often would race unsponsored. I think that had less to do with her being a woman and more to do with her just not being the best driver or spokesperson. Yes, she had some talent. She actually finished sixth in Arca series points, but in all honesty, that doesn't say much. Many, many drivers have preformed well at the lower levels and just couldn't cut it in Winston Cup. It's like a hotshot AAA ball pitcher getting shelled in the Majors.
That's going to come into play with Danika. We know she's a pretty good driver, we know she's got a decent car and backing. My only worry isn't that as a woman she's going to get emotional and start wrecking people. It's the fact that she is a little too high strung. She makes Rusty Wallace look like he's taking queludes. If she can calm down and just listen to her crew chief I think she's going to be alright. At the moment, all indications are that she will. She knows there's a big difference between Indy and Nascar and she knows that she doesn't know that much about the sport (relatively). Because of this she is probably more likely than any other driver on the track to actually listen to her crew chief. It's simply going to come down to her being "good enough."
Ok, so now that I've got the criticism about her being a woman cleared up (there is none), how about all this crap I hear about a woman driver being great for the sport. Why? How is having a female driver so wonderful? What does it actually do for the sport? The demographics I dug up show that Nascar fans are about 60% male and (obviously) 40% female. I suppose the belief is that a woman driver will attract more women fans, so congratulations Feminism, you're "great for the sport" ploy is nothing but a Nascar play for your pocketbooks. On that note, it will probably work.
Time for some business 101: Yes, Danika's been selling merchandise hand over fist, but so do all new drivers that are heavily backed by the media. She's new which means fans can't wear the same Danika Patrick shit (that was actually a typo, I meant to type shirt, but it has the same effect either way) they bought two years ago. There will be a noticeable drop off in sales in about three years, assuming this madness continues. Who will buy this merchandise? That 40% of women. That's actually pretty good because you can figure where all the male drivers are competing for 100% of the market, Danika has cornered 40% by herself. Nearly all women will want a Danika Patrick shirt. As for the other 60%? Well, let's just say I don't see myself in a bar sitting next to a guy in a Danika hat shouting "Patrick!" like Freebird.
Ok, so there is money involved. Is that how we define "great for the sport?" It doesn't grow the fan base, it merely grabs an untapped marketing potential of the current fans. Some how I'm not expecting hundreds of thousands of women to come flocking to the sport just because there is a woman driver. The only thing Nascar gets out of this that is "great for the sport" is media attention. With any luck somebody will tune in to see this woman driver everybody is talking about and decide "hey, this is a pretty cool sport." I hope that happens, because hey, it is a pretty cool sport.