Keith Strudler: Danica Patrick

Feb 27, 2013

By all accounts, last week was a good week for Danica Patrick. First she won the pole position to Sunday’s main event. Then she dominated press week and avoided any kind of slip that often accompanies that intensity. And finally, she finished eighth overall in the race, entering the final lap in the top three with a legitimate chance to win. So all and all, I’d say it was a really nice week.

The sports authorities agreed in large share as well. On, experts averaged about a 9.5 on a 10 point scale. In fact, most said the only other thing she could have done is win. I’d probably add finishing 2nd through 7th as well, but that’s mainly semantics.

They also discussed what she probably learned from the experience, how she’ll start to master restrictor plate racing, which is what some people call the Jersey Turnpike, and how she might be a force at Darlington, or some other house hold race this spring. That might all be true, although my knowledge of auto racing is only slightly greater than my innate understanding of ironing. In other words, not at all.

At the very least, I’d say her handling of the press was top fuel. She never got angry, thanked her sponsors, and even adeptly answered questions of her on track boyfriend Ricky Steinhouse Jr., who she beat by the way. She even ignored a couple of hegemonic comments, which is standard fare I suppose when you’re Danica Patrick.

Perhaps just as importantly, it seems Patrick may finally be accepted as a legitimate race car driver instead of a circus act. She can rightfully pursue her career choice without being criticized for being too small, or too inexperienced, or whatever marginalizing phrase objectors threw out. Better put, it seems she’s now part of the boy’s club, for better or worse.

So the question becomes, now what?

Danica’s finally achieved what female athletes have striven for over decades and generations. She’s allowed to compete fairly and evenly in a sport that values testosterone like it were gasoline. Other drivers have given her praise. The press says she belongs. She’s even been able to maintain a romantic relationship with another driver without the awful scrutiny that one might expect to come from it. As some ad campaign once put it, she’s arrived.

And yet, if you watched the Super Bowl, it seems she’s not fully there.

At least if you’ve seen her Go Daddy commercials that make women look like consumable objects, where fans are encouraged to go online for the end of a titillating sales pitch involving way more than web housing. Danica has made herself, by her own design, a whole lot of a sex symbol.

Perhaps it seemed that was the only way, trying to capitalize in a world that largely discouraged your gainful employment. Danica couldn’t do beer commercials and Wranglers commercials or sell chewing tobacco like the other male drivers, most of whom, by the way, outraced her. She was relegated to the stereotypical world of sexual sales, where women are stripped of power along with their clothing.

But now it should be different. Danica’s a real driver, by all accounts. She can foster a serious living through driving a car. And she can demand sponsors that sell more than female body parts. It might not be quite as lucrative, not at first at least. But it will demand more respect than what she gets after an ad shoot in a steamy shower. And it would do a whole lot to pave the way for future female athletes, and women in general. The question is, then, is she willing to do just that.

It’s hard and probably unfair to tell someone what to do with their live and their money. So I won’t. I’ll just say this. Right now, Danica will be remembered as the first star female driver in NASCAR. And that’s it. But if she wants, she can also be remembered as a pioneer. That’s probably harder, even, than an 8th place finish in one of the world’s most competitive auto races.

But it would be even better than what was, by all accounts, a very good week.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

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