Friday, February 26, 2010

Danica Manias: The Deranged, The Dedicated, and the Delusional

The trouble with writing anything about Danica these days is the possibility that--conscientiously or otherwise--we may be "milking" the Danica hype, or, in the very least, be accused of milking the hype. However, it is precisely because of that hype that we feel we must express our opinion, not only of Danica, but of her talent and of the over-the-top publicity that surrounds her.

There are three types of Danica fans: The Deranged--those who hate Danica so much for her television ads and Sports Illustrated photo shoots that they fail to see her talent; The Delusional are those who are enamored of Danica because of her Go Daddy ads and Sports Illustrated shoots that they, also, ignore or overlook her talent; The Dedicated are those fans to whom the photo shoots and television ads mean very little--it is her on track performance that is the most important.

It is true that nearly any racecar driver, male or female, has three groups of fans similar to those outlined here, but it is usually something besides bikini photos that polarizes the Deranged and the Delusional. There has been media frenzy around Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, Cal Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, and many others through racing history. The attention was well deserved, based upon their records on the track. There can even be a comparison made between the attention given to Turner and that given to Danica--Turner was as well known for his antics away from the track as he was for his racing ability. The point here, however, is that these are all men who succeeded exceptionally well in what is traditionally known as a men's sport.

Janet Guthrie gets the credit as the woman who broke barriers going into a "men's" sport. There were other women who raced in NASCAR before she did, but few of them ever finished a race on the lead lap, much less scored as high a finish as did Ms Guthrie. She is in the record books as finishing sixth at Bristol in 1970. That is, if we are not mistaken (feel free to correct us, it happens all the time) the best finish any woman has achieved in the Cup Series. Janet never raced a full season in NASCAR, but nobody, except for Richard Petty, was racing a full Cup season at the time. We can only surmise what Guthrie may have accomplished if she had gained more experience by participating in more than just a few races in each of the seven years she was active in NASCAR.

Lyn St James also met with some success as a woman in major league racing. Although her best finish in NASCAR was eleventh place, she proved that she was more than a back marker with a pretty face and could "mix it up with the boys" in any racing situation. She now operates a racing school for young women, where, in her words, the emphasis is more on "physical and emotional training and preparation for a racing career," rather than in actually driving in a race. Danica Patrick is an alumnus of St James' racing school.

Drag racing is very different from closed course racing, and a different set of skills are needed to react quickly within the the three seconds or so it takes to run a quarter mile. However, we would be remiss in not mentioning the success of Shirley Muldowny, a true pioneer in women's racing, and Ashley Force-Hood. We have no way of knowing if these very highly skilled racers could have the stamina to race on a closed course track, but with the instincts and reactions they have demonstrated in drag racing, they would probably also have some success in closed course racing if they chose to attempt it.

There are other women who have attempted to race in NASCAR and the IRL/CART/OWCCS, and there has been media hype around them as well, mainly because they are women participating in a field comprised mostly of men. Sarah Fisher, Erin Crocker-Evernham, Katherine Leggett, and Shawna Robinson have all made their marks as solo racecar drivers on closed courses.

Fisher has made a powerful statement for women in racing. She caught the attention of the racing world, when, in 2000, she finished third at Kentucky. From 2000 to 2002, she had three top five finishes and one pole in 31 races. In 2008, she attempted to enter NASCAR racing as a developmental driver for Richard Childress Racing, but lost backing before she even left what is now known as the NASCAR Whelen All American Series. She has returned, part time, to Indycar racing with her own team. Over ten years, she has competed in 76 IRL events, with 3 top fives, nine top ten finishes, one pole, and has led 39 laps.

Erin Crocker-Evernham was the first woman to win a WoO sprint car B-Main event, but her NASCAR career was somewhat lackluster and ended her embroiled in scandal. There was certainly a lot of hype around Crocker-Evernham, but it had nothing to do with her racing ability.

Katherine Leggett won two consecutive Atlantic (Open Wheel) Series championships, but faded after a mediocre season in the OWCCS, although there was some talk of her trying out for Formula 1. F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone remarked of Leggett, "We have nothing against women in racing as long as they wear white, to match the rest of the kitchen appliances."

When we hear such sexist garbage, we can understand the odds against women racers must stand, and we should understand why there is so much so-called "hype" surrounding them.

Shawna Robinson is a great example of being a victim of hype that backfired. She is a very talented driver who could not get the break she needed. After all, she is in the racing history books as the only woman to finish as high as second place in the ARCA series. She never backed down from a challenge on the track. We feel that she was not given enough time in the NASCAR Cup series to develop to her full potential.In 2003 after racing only 8 Cup series races, she went to race in the Truck Series. This is the unfortunate part of the story, concerning hype. Because of the sponsorship/ownership deal she had to agree to, in order to race, she was featured in an "all girl" race team. This venture in public relations ended up costing more money than it made, and made it very difficult for Robinson, a very capable driver in her own right, to find serious sponsorship or an owner who was willing to give her a well-deserved second chance. However, as much as some racing pundits would have us believe, it is not Danica's fault she is not racing, any more than it is Shawna's fault. If a sponsorship opportunity is given, a driver must take it if he or she wants to race. In Shawna's case, it was the unintended consequence of the All Girl Racing Team that resulted in her not being taken seriously enough by owners and sponsors to get the break she deserves.

Danica Patrick began racing go-carts at the age of five. At fourteen, she attended Lyn St James' Racing Acadamy. At eighteen, she was given the opportunity to race in Europe in the Formula 3 open wheel series. There, she showed the world that she could race with "the boys." Unfortunately, she met head on with the sexist European double standard when she drank with the boys after the race, and was fired from her job for being "too much of a party girl," and not "matching the rest of the kitchen appliances."

Returning to the United States, she was hired on a trial basis by Rahal-Letterman Racing Team, and passed the test. In 2005, she won the IRL Rookie Of The Year award. She qualified in fourth position for the Indianapolis 500 and finished in fourth place. That year, she had three poles, seven top ten and two top five finishes, and finished twelfth in the championship points. In 2006, she finished ninth in points, seventh in 2007, sixth in 2008--after she became the first (and only, so far)woman to post a solo victory in a major racing series, and fifth in 2009, ahead of her Andretti Racing team mates, including former Indy 500 winner and IRL Champion Tony Kanaan. It should also be noted that last year there was more competition in the points race due to the unification of the IRL and the OWCCS (Champcar Series). In 81 races over her five year career, she has started from pole position three times, led 110 laps, and has posted sixteen top five finishes. She finished third at the 2009 Indianapolis 500.

When we hear from Dave Despain and others who suffer from DDS (Danica Derangement Syndrome), we hear that Patrick is a mediocre driver who would have only driven in a few races if she wasn't an attractive woman. But, looking at her records, we can see that she earned her place in the IRL through her performance, not her looks. She had made her mark in racing long before she appeared in the 2008 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Despain's argument that Patrick is popular because of her appearance, rather than her ability, falls flat when we realize that there have only been fourteen race winners (out of more than forty drivers) in the IRL during the last five years, including Danica. She is a competitive driver among all racers, not just women.

And, we have to wonder, was Despain calling Lyn St James "ugly" on his show last Sunday, by implying that Danica's success was only because of she being an attractive woman? No wonder St James seemed uncomfortable on Wind Tunnel. No, Dave, you're not sexist, you are a misogynist.

Danica Patrick does not write the GoDaddy commercials, but appears in them as part of that all important sponsorship agreement. She also appears in commercials for her associate sponsors: Motorola, Boost Mobile, and Peak Performance. Yes, she does get a lot of exposure that way, and we are certain that the reason that she is a hot commodity in advertising is because she is attractive, but that is not what makes her competitive, and it is certainly is not why she is able to race every week. Danica performs on the track well enough to get the attention she receives as a racer.

Or perhaps there are those who think the reason the US Women's Olympic Ski Team won their medals is because they appeared in SI's 2010 Swimsuit issue? That is as ridiculous as claiming that Patrick is successful in racing she was in the 2008 and 2009 swimsuit issues. Sports Illustrated is a sports magazine, after all, and has long included sports stars in the swimsuit photo shoots. In previous swimsuit issues, there have been tennis stars, swimmers, gymnasts, skiers, and snowboarders featured in bikini photos. Danica Patrick is merely the first racecar driver to appear in such an issue. But that shouldn't take away from her racing ability.

Danica has shown that she is still learning, and improving every year in which she races. She may or may not win a race in NASCAR, but at the rate she is improving in the IRL, we feel that it is not a question of if, but when she will win the Indianapolis 500. What will the folks who suffer from DDS say then?

Topic for Discussion: Is Kasey Kahne only allowed to race because he is good looking?

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