Danica Patrick will be on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500, the first woman to win the top spot in the sport’s prestigious Opening Day event. It’s a milestone for a woman in a sport almost entirely comprised of men.
Beyond that, what it means is unclear. To win the pole, you have to drive faster than anyone without crashing. You aren’t driving in traffic, against competition and tire wear and fatigue. You’re just facing the clock. Racing is much more than that. Rubbin’ is racin’, as Robert Duvall taught us, but so is grudges and taps and drafting and the occasional display of pugilism in pit road. We may find Patrick has arrived if, after a race, a fellow driver unhooks his netting, climbs out the window, flings off his helmet and punches her. I have a feeling she’ll punch back.
Patrick is on the cusp of being the complete sports star: talent, good looks and a knack for self-promotion. That one she has in spades, and she’s smart — that one matters a lot in the digital age. What she’s missing, however, is crucial: victories. Victories on big stages, dramatic victories, comeback victories. Patrick can be a star based on her looks — the Anna Kournikova of racing — but if she wants to be a true star, she has to win. She has an IndyCar win under her belt, but IndyCar does not have the fan base of NASCAR. Poles on big stages are a step, but pole-winners aren’t stars.
NASCAR, of course, no longer has the fan base of NASCAR just a few years ago. When the sport was at its peak — remember “NASCAR dads” as a political label? — a new breed of fan hopped into the passenger seat, metaphorically (there are no passenger seats in the cars). That was supposed to create a young fan base that would spawn the next generation of fans.
But NASCAR is no longer the flavor of the month, which is probably more a result of the economy than lack of interest. Fred Thompson — sorry, I know he’s an actor, but I always picture him when I think of NASCAR officialdom — knows the sport needs more female fans and a more diverse audience.
It’s hard to say how the news that Patrick is dating fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who qualified 12th for Sunday’s race, will affect her Q rating. What will draw an audience is the race after they break up. Broken-hearted young lovers, facing each other at high speeds in metal caged death bombs. Woo-whee. That’s “The Bachelor” without all those pesky roses.
It’s interesting to hear Patrick paint herself as a draw to families, which has long been NASCAR’s mission statement. (Speaking of painting herself, Patrick never has, to our knowledge; she did paint clothes on a model’s body in a 2012 commercial. It’s hard to figure out how that translates to NASCAR’s vision: “Paint clothes on each other — fun for the entire family!”)
The sport has always lacked an ethnically diverse audience, but contrary to popular opinion, it’s always had female fans. “NASCAR dads” became a political buzzword a few years ago, much like “soccer moms,” but can Patrick create “NASCAR moms”? Or rather, more of them? I can see pubescent teenage boys as a fan base, because her godaddy.com commercials definitely skew that way, but girls of the same age? Jeff Gordon’s five-year-old daughter wanted her photo taken with the woman who’ll start just ahead of daddy Sunday, but then I’m guessing Ella hasn’t seen those commercials. Yet.
And there is nothing wrong with Patrick using all the weapons in her arsenal to promote herself. It’s her face and her body and she can do what she wants with them. I have no problem with that.
Gordon said his daughter hadn’t realized girls could grow up to be race car drivers, and that’s what Patrick brings to the table. “Groundbreaker” looks great on a résumé, and she is definitely that.
What more she can be remains to be seen. To win the Daytona 500 would be an amazing feat, although the pole is far from a guarantee of victory. The last Daytona winner to start on the pole was Dale Jarrett in 2000. It’s a long race — they don’t call it “500” for nothing — and a lot can go wrong. But while that would be an historic victory, the real ground-breaking comes when Patrick is in the Cup chase at the end of the season, and for several seasons.
When she’s a regular top finisher and she no longer creates a media hullabaloo when she arrives in Florida in February to start a new season, then Patrick will truly be a sports star. Until then, she’s a groundbreaker. There’s nothing wrong with that, but eventually the public — and Patrick herself — will want more.