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.
Danica Patrick, who is making the transition from IndyCar to driving full-time in NASCAR this season, spoke at the National Press Club in Washington Tuesday. (Feb. 21)
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.