Danica Patrick could change motor racing and sports forever

  • If Danica Patrick wins Sunday% 27s Daytona 500% 2C, it would be sports history of the year
  • Patrick% 2C 30% 2C took pole position last Sunday qualifying first with a lap of 196.434 mph
  • Patrick is already known by 70% 25 of American consumers, but a victory would take his fame to another level

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla .– Danica Patrick will compete from pole position at Sunday’s Daytona 500. No woman has ever done this in the 54-year history of NASCAR’s signature racing. That doesn’t mean she’s going to win. Odds makers believe that half of the 42 men competing with her have a better chance than her.

But imagine for a moment that she wins. This would be the sporting story of the young year, and possibly the new millennium, as few things resonate more in cultures around the world than the age-old tale of the battle of the sexes.

Men and women do not compete directly in most sports due to physiological differences, but motor racing is one of the few where size and strength matter less, and men and women show wit and of courage without any compensatory allowance. Golf allows for shorter driving distances from the ladies’ tees, but the driving distance in Daytona – 500 miles, 200 laps – is the same for both sexes.

This means that millions of people who have little interest in auto racing will have a marked interest in Sunday’s race on Fox (1 p.m. ET) simply because of the primal dynamics of men versus women.

“Anyone who’s ever been to college knows girls versus boys,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Gender is one of those categories, even in these enlightened times, that continues” to push all kinds of cultural buttons.

Janet Guthrie, 74, the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500, knows all about it.

“For most of human history, broad shoulders and big muscles have made the difference,” says Guthrie. “It’s only been about 100 years since this has always been the case. It’s only a blink of an eye in human history – and humans are still getting used to it.”

One of the men Patrick will face on Sunday is his new boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a plot worthy of a wacky 1940s comedy: think of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell exchanging barbed wire repartee for the roar of racing cars .

Patrick, 30, took pole position last Sunday qualifying first with a lap of 196.434 mph. Stenhouse, 25, was 12th and Jeff Gordon, who came second, stressed that at least he was the fastest man.

Patrick’s parents, TJ and Bev of Indianapolis, saw their daughter finish 17th in a 23-car field in a qualifying race on Thursday – that didn’t change her pole position – from a crow’s nest au- above a giant painted image of their daughter on the side of a GoDaddy.com trailer in the paddock.

“I have friends who say now their daughters want to run,” TJ says. “Either they’re mad at me or they’re happy, one of the two.”

Front start is a benefit that can wear off due to that intimidating 500 mile distance. Only nine of the 54 Daytona winners started from pole, or 17%.

“I’m going to take these chances,” Patrick said on ESPN this week. “I think it’s going to be tough and I wouldn’t consider myself a favorite to win. Even if, a fast car, you never know what can happen.”

If Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet finished first, it would suddenly be better known as a Daytona 500 winner than for appearing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, wearing little less than her neon green racing suit and provocative Super Bowl ads for Go Daddy, the Internet domain name company that sponsors its race car team.

“There would be, I hesitate to say, unprecedented media coverage, because it seems that all media coverage is unprecedented these days,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of California in Canada. South, “but the amount of coverage if it won would transcend the racing category and it would end up on Today and Good Morning, America as easily as Saturday Night Live and Letterman.”

Patrick is a rookie in his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series, the top tier of NASCAR, and has just one victory in 183 career starts in IndyCar and NASCAR, which begs the question whether he is. reasonable to expect she could win the Great American Race.

“Anyone in the race can because (Daytona) is such a wild card,” said ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett and the last driver to win this race from pole position in 2000. “Last year (( in a second level) Nationwide race, the guy who finished 11th in the last lap gets to the checkered flag first. Anything can happen in that. You just need to get in position to make it happen. “

King vs. Riggs

Men’s sports almost always attract more attention than women’s sports, with notable exceptions such as figure skating and gymnastics. But few things grab the attention of female athletes more than when they face men, as Billie Jean King discovered when she beat Bobby Riggs in a tennis show made for television in 1973. She is more famous, in some ways, for beating an aging con artist than for his Grand Slam career and great career.

This match took place during the uproar of the women’s liberation movement and was billed as the battle of the sexes but became younger (she was 29) than old (he was 55). King deftly moved Riggs side to side to an easy 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory. The match took place at the Astrodome, all the vulgarity of show biz far from the cuteness of strawberries and cream of Wimbledon.

Billie Jean King, right, beat Bobby Riggs in the historic "Battle of the sexes" tennis match in 1973, changing the perception of female athletes everywhere.

Its continuum in history looks like this: Title IX was passed in 1972, King defeated Riggs in 1973, and King founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, which continues to advocate for gender equality in sport, in 1974.

“I was a kid when the Bobby Riggs game was played,” said Thompson of Syracuse. “I had no interest in tennis. I didn’t play it. I didn’t watch it. I didn’t care. But I did care about this game. Johnny Carson was hitting it every night. C ‘was kind of a gadget, the new woman versus the old school guy. “

King, in an email to USA TODAY Sports, said, “We’re still in an era where women gain more media attention when they excel in what people traditionally see as a male arena (and) that is especially true in sports. part of that this week in Daytona, but motorsport is one of those opportunities where being a man or a woman doesn’t give you an absolute advantage like it might in other sports. “

King hopes Patrick’s performance “prompts all of us to recognize her first and foremost as a great racing driver and not just a woman who drives racing cars.”

Sports historian Allen Guttmann points out that “Motorsports have been identified more with masculinity and masculinity than tennis… especially risky motorsports like Indy and Daytona. They seem to be seen as a sort of male reserve. It is difficult for some men to see women coming into their sport. “

Guthrie, who had the former best starting point for a woman in Daytona (18th in 1980), found it out with his own eyes.

Janet Guthrie was overrun after becoming the first woman to qualify for an Indianapolis 500 in 1977. Guthrie qualified 18th in the 1980 Daytona 500.

“I became the pioneer, as time and fate intended,” says Guthrie. “The boys at the Oval Track had never had the experience of running against a woman, and they were sure they weren’t going to like it and didn’t hesitate to voice that opinion.”

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser later moderated his view, recounting The Philadelphia Investigator in 1979: “I have to admit I had my doubts about her. But she proved she could be in the top 10.”

Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski has doubts about Patrick. She enjoys multi-million dollar support through her influence with consumers, although riders with better track results sometimes struggle to find funding.

“When Danica gets in the car, I don’t think, ‘Oh, there’s that girl.’ I think, ‘Oh, there’s this driver in 30th place, “Keselowski said.” That’s the reality. People who tell me about Danica and say, “Dude, you gotta give her more luck.” No, you gotta give her less luck. You have to treat her as an equal and think about those who have never been so close to having the opportunity that she did have. “

Star power

Darrell Waltrip, FOX analyst on Sunday’s race, said if Patrick wins, “it would change this sport forever, take it to another level – I promise you.”

It would also take Patrick’s fame to another level, and she is already known to 70% of American consumers, along with Emmitt Smith, Bob Costas and John Malkovich, according to Celebrity DBI, a database that quantifies consumer perceptions of approximately 2,800 celebrities.

“Her brand awareness is already at a high level and it can only increase” if it wins, said Matt Delzell, general manager of the celebrity talent division of The Marketing Arm, the Dallas-based company that collects the data. “But Danica is one of those people who’s no small mistake on the radar. She’s a marketing machine.”

In 2011, Forbes estimated Patrick’s annual income at $ 12 million, the third highest among female athletes behind female tennis players Maria Sharpova ($ 25 million) and Caroline Wozniacki ($ 12.5 million).

Bonnie McCain from Umatilla, Fla. Is in Daytona to see Patrick. “There are a lot of little girls running around here with green shirts,” McCain says. “It’s not just a boys’ sport anymore.”

Horse races either. Retired jockey Julie Krone knows the feeling Patrick is hoping he came on Sunday. Krone won the Belmont aboard Colonial Affair in 1993 and she remains the only woman to win a Triple Crown race. She’ll watch Sunday and cheer on Patrick.

“Danica doesn’t know it, but she drives a clown car,” says Krone. “Open that door and you will see women from all over the world come out. “

Brady reported from McLean, Va. And Ryan from Daytona Beach. Contribution: Jeff Gluck, Michael Hiestand and Jeff Olson

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