Danica Patrick has already won respect heading into her first Daytona 500

Sally Jenkins
Columnist February 25, 2012

I keep staring at the cockpit video of 100-pound Danica Patrick maneuvering her 3,400-pound stock car just before it crashed into a wall at Daytona International Speedway. Her composure was what was so striking. She lifted her gloved hands from the wheel, so she wouldn’t break her wrists, clutched her helmet right before impact — and blam! Then she unbuckled and stalked away from that stoved-in, wheel-less, smoking green Chevy without a tremor.

It’s a funny thing to call a crash impressive, but that’s what it was, a tremendous, violent, smoldering head-on wreck. All eyes were on Patrick during Thursday’s qualifying races, waiting to see. Basically, waiting to see if the little girl could handle that great big car, and be a worthy competitor when she makes her debut in Sunday’s Daytona 500. What she gave us was something close to a defining moment. We can stop with the haggling over whether to call Patrick a good or bad feminist, and the hand-wringing over her image. Who cares? After watching that wreck, I know exactly what to call her: a pro.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Patrick was in 10th place and trying to stay out of trouble in the bottom lane, just one lap from the finish in the qualifying race, when she got sideswiped by Aric Almirola. All afternoon, she had been judged and appraised by the other drivers, including her team owner, Tony Stewart, who admitted afterward that he stole glances in his rearview mirror.

It was obvious they were steering clear and sizing her up, waiting to see whether she would lose her head and do something stupid or aggressive. Instead she handled her car smoothly and patiently, tried to demonstrate “she’s solid and going to make good decisions and not just pull the pin every time she gets the chance to break out of line,” according to Stewart. “It was really impressive to watch how she just kept picking her way through the field.”

As it turned out, the crash proved the point more than a clean finish could have. For grace under pressure, how about being forced off the track and into a wall, ruining your car before your big debut, and then walking off the track without a wobble, or a complaint? “It’s not how we wanted to roll into Sunday,” she said. “We wanted to be cool, calm and collected with no damage.”

One day later, she won the pole for Saturday’s season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona, where she was involved in a second crash and finished 38th, but shook that off, too.

I’ve always liked Patrick a lot, because she owns herself. Her image and sexuality belong to no one. They are nobody’s property but hers, to do with as she pleases, and she reserves the right to play bait-and-switch with them. She’s an expert self-promoter, with as much control in that area as she has over a car. For all of the discussion about her risque Go-Daddy commercials, they are all suggestion and little exposure, with a lot of zipper sounds but not a lot of skin. Off camera, she’s firmly married and very private. Good for her.

As an athlete, she has no political or social agenda, she’s never bought into what Camille Paglia calls “Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers.” She knows better than to whine about patriarchy in racing, because the sport made her a millionaire. Every good car she’s gotten came from a guy. Again, good for her.

But it’s a lonely position she’s staked out. She’s disrespected from two sides at once. The ogling guys act like she’s another Anna Kournikova, more image than substance — despite the fact that she has 63 top-10 finishes in IndyCar racing over seven seasons, including a third in the Indianapolis 500. The hard-shell feminists claim she panders to misogyny by posing in a swimsuit. Too many men and women alike aren’t comfortable with the idea that she can be attractive and highly competent in an all-male profession. It’s like they want her to choose: Is she a swimsuit model or a butchy driver? Can’t be both.

Why can’t we just call Patrick what she is, a highly aspirational pro and a hell of a businesswoman? She genuinely cares about racing; she doesn’t just use it as a vehicle to sell pinup calendars. NASCAR is a brutal fender-banging game, and the fact that she is willing to be a rookie at it at this comfortable stage of her career shows you how ambitious and self-challenging she is. People can accuse her all they want of bucking for a wider audience, but the fact is, it’s just too dangerous to pursue frivolously.

What should be obvious after this Daytona 500 is that Patrick is first and foremost a tough, committed athlete.

Her debut probably won’t be all she hoped, because she will be in a backup car, with a poorer starting position thanks to the wreck. But she handled her first Daytona wreck with supreme expertise and self-possession, and according to one member of her team, some supposedly superior drivers could learn from her.

Her race strategist, Greg Zipadelli, told the Associated Press afterward: “Her biggest thing was she wanted to go out there and ride with a bunch of guys and be in there and earn the respect of them — she can do this, she’s not all over the place. I mean, I never saw her car move. I saw a lot of grown men couldn’t keep their car under control. So maybe they need to work on that.”

No matter what happens Sunday, Patrick already has won what she came to Daytona for: the regard of her fellow drivers. She deserves it from her audience, too.

For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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