The King has spoken, and he has opened the discussion of Danica Patrick and the greater issue of women in racing once again. By now, even casual race fans know that the legendary Richard Petty says the only Danica Patrick will win a race is if all the other drivers stay home.
Sure enough, Petty got quite a reaction, an even bigger reaction than when his son Kyle said Patrick wasn’t a “real racer.” Once again, the old man overshadows his kid. Judging from the reaction of the fans, there are more Danica supporters than there was once was, but still a good many more who say the seven-time champion is right. That is to say, she gets NASCAR a lot of attention, but isn’t taken all that seriously as a legitimate contender for wins or titles.
This topic has been pretty well talked to death, but here’s what the real question is in the mind of this observer? Are NASCAR fans closed off to the notion of a female race car driver, or does it have more to do with Patrick herself? That question could be more complex than one might expect.
There may be some old school fans that for whatever reason cannot handle a woman wheeling a car around an oval track at close to 200 miles per hour. Those fans never heard of Louise Smith, Ethel Mobley, or Sara Christian, who were racing in the days of Lee Petty and Tim Flock. Those fans aside, you actually hear a lot of fans speaking in positive terms of 21-year old Floridian Johanna Long- who has logged 65 starts in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series racing primarily with small organizations such as ML Motorsports. While her statistics are far from spectacular, it is worth noting that Long has shown improvement, all while driving in less than competitive equipment- not a criticism, just an observation. All in all, Long’s girl next door persona, and a distinctly “non-diva” vibe endear her to some fans who have been following the sport they remember a Janet Guthrie.
The encouragement thrown Long’s way, or in the direction of a journeyman racer such as Jennifer Jo Cobb seems to suggest fans are more than open to a woman competing in NASCAR. The real problem may lie more with Danica Patrick herself. Some take issue with Patrick using her sex appeal in Go Daddy ads and Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoots as a means to gain notice. Others have a great problem with her attitude, which has come across as snarky and combative on the track. Along the way, she’s tangled with Morgan Shepherd, Travi Kvapil, David Gilliland, Sam Hornish, and Landon Cassill to name a few. IT’s also been noted her humorless reaction to a joke made by actor/ sports radio talker Jay Mohr at the Awards Banquet just a couple of months back. All of this to say, it doesn’t seem as though fans have a real issue with a woman driving, it’s THIS woman they have a problem with. For all the attention she generates, her resume is long on hype and short on accomplishment, resulting in resentment.
A more interesting development is to see what happens when the day comes that a female driver becomes competitive on a week in/ week out basis. Whether that be Patrick, Long or somebody else, what will the good old boys of the sport do then? Her boss (Tony Stewart) has been supportive, and so have teammates- at least publicly. Otherwise, there’s a perception that male drivers aren’t going to let themselves get beat by “some girl.” Is that perception, or reality? One can only speculate for now, though there may the evidence to suggest some of Patrick’s competitors haven’t cut her much slack. Now whether that’s because its Patrick, or because she’s woman is open to debate.
You can make a good argument for about any side of this debate, and its one that isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s only a matter of time before we find out where fans, drivers and anyone else associated with the sport stands on the topic. Truth be told, this fan and father of two daughters (with a son in between) welcomes the day.