Patrick good reason for everyone to pay attention to racing

February 19, 2013 

Upfront disclaimer: I can offer no expert analysis nor insider information on Sunday’s Daytona 500.

I understand it’s a car race, and I have never born witness to such a thing in person. I have viewed highlights on television, and I have collected a speeding ticket or two over the years.

But I’m in trouble if pressed for specifics. Restrictor plates? I don’t know, maybe what you get at the start of a Jenny Craig buffet line.

This preamble is not to usurp readers’ joy in pointing out my ignorance, but to offer myself as an example of the impact of Danica Patrick’s historic feat of earning the Daytona pole position.

Many of us who would not otherwise be paying attention now are. So, for others like me, here is some aggregate background.

First, Patrick is a female. A key point in this story.

She drove her Chevy one lap around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway at more than 196 miles per hour. By being the fastest (with no other cars on the track), Patrick gets to start the NASCAR showcase event on the inside position of the first row.

The history part: No woman driver has ever won the pole position in a top-level NASCAR event (Janet Guthrie qualified ninth on two occasions in 1977).

Patrick, 30, is a relative newcomer to stock-car racing, but has been behind a wheel since she started racing go-karts at 10. A high-school cheerleader, she dropped out of school at 16. At an age associated with getting a learners’ permit to drive, she moved to England to hone her racing skills.

In 2005, she was the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. And in 2009 finished third at Indy, highest by a woman.

Still, since her Indy breakthrough, she’s been more widely appreciated for marketing skills than driving skills.

A quick internet search will reward the curious with samples of her appearances in a bikini in Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions, or in suggestive ads. It caused the skeptics to think her appeal to fans and race promoters was based mostly on her redundant X chromosomes.

But the shock of this gender anomaly seems to be wearing off among fellow drivers, who were complimentary after Sunday’s groundbreaking developments.

Enumclaw’s Kasey Kahne, who finished sixth in trials, cited the importance of the car and crew and “those guys in the engine shop” for anybody running such a fast lap. But he added: “To come here and have that composure – she’s got to do her part, too – and she did a really good job.”

Patrick has clearly been comfortable and shrewd as curator and promoter of her brand. But there seemed to be little showmanship involved early in what may be the most visible week of her life.

“I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,” she said afterward.

Pioneers and history-makers feel pressure. But Patrick said that’s when she performs the best.

“I just understand that if you put the hard work in before you go out there, that can give you a little peace of mind ... knowing that you’ve done everything you can and just let it happen.”

The story is going around that the young daughter of driver Jeff Gordon asked to get her picture taken with Patrick, and all parties were delighted with the product.

It’s good that Gordon wasn’t hindered by some competitive ego.

It was rewarding to Patrick to have the validation as a role model rather than a swimsuit model.

And it was a chance for 5-year-old Ella Gordon to see one more door opening into her future. The message to the girls like Ella, Patrick said is, “You can do anything you want to do, and gender doesn’t matter.”

Yes, there’s a lot more involved in racing success than just the talent and daring of the driver. But, by now, Patrick has proven she has a load of racing chops to go with the rest. And that makes this year’s Daytona 500 race more exciting than it’s ever been to nontraditional viewers.

“I’ve been lucky enough to make history, (to) be the first woman to do many things,” she said. “We have a lot more history to make; we are excited to do it.”

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@ @DaveBoling

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