The stakes are high for Danica Patrick

How high? Really fucking high. Like, “the future of women in sports rests on your shoulders on this one day so no pressure, ok?” high.

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.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Don’t forget about all the mixed gender equestrian teams and competitions – Margie Goldstein amongst my favorites.

  2. Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    As sad as I am to say it, part of me wonders how soon after Danica wins will NASCAR start losing followers – “a girl won, so clearly it sux now.”

    I’ve noticed a lot of that take-my-ball-and-go-home mentality when the ladies show themselves just as capable as the gents, and not just athletics – I went to a state chess tournament in high school, and since each round was about 3 hours long, there was a lot of waiting around time. After I beat my fellow teammates in Risk a few times, they went off to play basketball til the next round and never played Risk again at future tournaments.

    I hope I’m just projecting, and crossing all crossables that Danica winning the Daytona 500 will herald the dawning of complete awesomeness.

  3. Posted February 22, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    “She would in many ways have exceeded the accomplishments of any female athlete, ever—be it “Babe” Zaharias, Billie Jean King, or Brandi Chastain.”

    The author putting Brandi Chastain in the soccer slot of the list over Mia Hamm (most accomplished U.S. soccer player in history) accidentally brings out an important point: is it the accomplishments we’re monitoring, or fame? If Chastain is more famous than Mia Hamm it’s because of the time she ripped her shirt off, not her contributions to the sport. (not to say that Chastain wasn’t great as well)

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