When a stock car is running at 196 miles per hour, it’s impossible to tell whether the driver is a man or a woman: The driver is just a blur without a trace of specific character to the rest of us awed bystanders. It’s one of the few instances in sports when women compete directly against men, with no allowances. When Danica Patrick crosses the start line in Sunday’s Daytona 500, her situation will be exactly the same as the guys: They’ll all be staring out of helmets at the road ahead, absorbing high speed sensory jolts while encased in 3,400 pounds of carbon and sheet metal.
Nevertheless, when it’s Patrick driving, the question inevitably arises: Is a racecar really genderless?
“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s a good question, whether men versus women have differences in reflex and response. But in general, yeah, I think the car doesn’t know the difference when the girl gets into it.”
We were talking by phone just a day after she had become the first woman ever to win the pole position for the Daytona 500, and questions about gender were inevitable. Patrick’s femininity dogs her. It’s the inescapable topic no matter what she does: If she runs hot in her Go Daddy car, she’s a barrier-breaker for women, and if she wrecks or finishes poorly, her detractors call her an over-sold pin-up girl, who takes victory laps for her gender without winning anything. Either way, she hits the public nerve.
What’s most interesting to me about Patrick, though, is not her womanness, but how she deals with it. Watching her walk through her fledgling career as the only female in NASCAR is not unlike watching a driver adroitly pick off cars, negotiate curves and avoid trouble in a crowded field. It’s an essay in control. In talking to her about this larger performance, what you get is a blast of cool intelligence, a fundamentally composed whip-smartness.
There is Danica the Brand, she says, and then there is Danica the Driver, and then there is Danica the OverBlown Doll. And she is very clear on the differences between them, and the awkward fact that her accomplishments, while many, do not yet meet her accelerated public stature.
“The brand is a good thing,” she said. “And it takes time, and you can’t buy that, it just has to happen. From the time earlier in my career in 2005, when I came on the scene big, from that point on, it’s been a continuous building process. And no matter what happens it seems there is more awareness of me, and my name. Over time you create the brand because there is a certain consistency to what you say, what you do, and how you speak. . . . I would say that the ‘brand’ is an identity, of certain things I stand for, an image. If people have criticism of me, and whether I live up to something, it’s not of the brand or image, it’s the hype and media attention.”
The hype is the one thing she can’t steer.
“It’s a response thing,” she said. “And I’m grateful for it, but it’s not something I control.”
What Patrick is trying to do is close the gap between those different versions of herself. She moved to NASCAR from Indycar racing last year in part because it felt more natural to her. She was weary of the Indycar emphasis on scientific data, whereas NASCAR, despite its hurly-burly, is more about the soft feel of her hands on the wheel, and her close relationship with her crew chief, Tony Gibson. He’s an “old school” NASCAR chief, she says, who likes to hunt, fish, and listen to country music. The two would not seem to be suited for each other, yet they are.
“I was thinking to myself ‘Why do I get along with the old-school guys a little better or easier,” she says. “And my Dad said it’s because they don’t overthink things, or over-engineer. They’re more instinctive or something. I guess that makes some sense. That’s what I grew up with in Go Karts: how the car feels is what you base changes off of, and it’s refreshing in NASCAR not to have so much data.”
It’s a discussion that comes perilously close to stereotyping — women like to operate on feelings and don’t have an aptitude for science — but if so, Patrick shrugs it off. Which is another reason to like her: She never treats the gender discussion as if it’s a grim load to bear. She carries herself with a lightness.
If Patrick doesn’t win the Daytona 500 on Sunday it won’t be because she’s a woman, anymore than it will be because she’s 30 years old, or brunette. It will be because she’s still essentially a rookie in NASCAR. Who crashed in two of her first 10 races and finished an average of 28th in her first incomplete season.
“I’ve got to get in tune with the handling to be fast and comfortable,” she says. “I still don’t have as solid, confident and comfortable feeling for the car yet.”
But she’s got enough feeling to have the fastest car in qualifying, and that is no small accomplishment. In sorting out what’s important about Patrick, it’s not that she wins consolation prizes for being the “fastest woman.” It’s that she’s not afraid of questions, of taking on ingrained notions, of playing with image and brand, while preserving her self-possession. It’s that she’s not afraid of questioning herself, either, which is the essence of any great aspiring athlete. She showed that a girl can drive a stock car faster than anyone on an empty track, and it didn’t satisfy her. Now wants to answer the question of whether she can do it against other cars in the Great American Race.
And if she raises a few more question along the way, about whether men and women really are the same underneath it all, or whether they really are different, that’s fine. But her instinct is that it’s irrelevant.
“It’s an interesting thought, and I would doubt much has gone into knowing or learning about it,” she says. “I’d be curious to know if men and women are built a little different when it comes to their reflexes or feelings, or their timing. Or maybe it just comes down to the differences from one individual to the next. It might be difficult to ever know. All I can think about is my own strength and weakness.”