The Daytona 500 is this weekend, and Patrick has a pretty good shot at winning. At The Atlantic, Hampton Stevens explains why that would be such a big deal:
Daytona is NASCAR’s richest and most prestigious contest, and no one can truly call themselves a great champion without winning at least one. Also like the Masters, the Daytona 500 has so much cultural currency that whoever wins could dramatically impact the world beyond sports. That is, if the winner happens to not be a white male.
The obvious comparison, then, would be between Patrick to Tiger Woods, who broke racial barriers by succeeding at the Masters. But if Patrick could win the race on Sunday, or any time during her career, it would arguably—depending on whether you think gender or racial equality matters more—be the most socially significant thing to happen in American sports since Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball, or ever. At the very least, Patrick winning at Daytona would be the single greatest moment in the history of women in pro sports. She would in many ways have exceeded the accomplishments of any female athlete, ever—be it “Babe” Zaharias, Billie Jean King, or Brandi Chastain.
That’s because the unique nature of motorsports allows Patrick to do what almost every other female athlete can’t: compete equally with men. Due to racing’s heavy reliance on technology, and because winning demands the fairly gender-neutral traits of endurance, eye-hand coordination, reaction time, and courage, Patrick can compete in the same venues, under the same rules, for the same trophies as men. That’s what makes her opportunity so historically unique. No woman has ever done that in a major American sport. Beyond some hype about Michelle Wie a few years ago, there’s never been a female golfer who even threatened to qualify for a men’s PGA event, let alone win a Masters. There’s no woman close to taking on men at Roland-Garros or Wimbledon, let alone competing in the NBA or NFL. Only motorsports offers the chance of gender equality.
Stevens goes on to note that in addition to being successful, Patrick is also wildly popular, and is likely to win the Most Popular Driver award this year. She’d be the first woman to do so, and she’d certainly ruin Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s day.
What he doesn’t mention is that for a lot of feminists, Patrick is a tough case; she has an endorsement deal with GoDaddy, known for its sexist advertising, in which she sometimes participates. That’s a larger conversation, one about the paucity of endorsement opportunities available to women athletes, and about choosing your battles. It’s a conversation we need to have, especially if Patrick wins at Daytona. GoDaddy commercials make me want to vomit. But Patrick’s chance to make history, and to open up racing to other women, makes me want to cheer for her this weekend.