Every hero needs a villain, so the sports media were positively giddy last weekend when Robby Gordon started whining about Danica Patrick’s figure. Patrick is the 23-year-old woman who turned in the most famous fourth-place finish in auto-racing history at last weekend’s Indianapolis 500. Gordon opined that Patrick’s svelte physique —she weighs in at about 100 pounds—gives her an unfair advantage against fleshier drivers.
Gordon’s skinny-bashing has little merit. Over 500 grueling miles, the pounds mean far less than talent, focus, and stamina. His misguided disapproval did allow Patrick to skate past a more valid criticism, though. Patrick competes in a racing series that has been watered down to the point of irrelevance. While beating men in such a macho domain is laudable, it should be noted somewhere—OK, here—that her accomplishment represents less of a cultural shift than a reflection of the sad state of affairs at Indy.
Don’t be mad at yourself for letting the world’s best-known race drift from your consciousness. No one has been interested in the Indy 500 for a decade. The vehicles that greats like Foyt and Andretti raced to glory are called Indy cars. The series they raced in was called CART, and until the mid-1990s it was the dominant domestic motor-sports franchise. But in 1994, Tony George, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, announced the formation of the Indy Racing League. George wrapped himself in the flag, claiming the move was designed to promote American drivers and sponsors. In reality, it was a blatant power grab.
CART owners responded by boycotting the Indy 500 and running the swiftly forgotten U.S. 500 in its place. While the media waited for one series to establish dominance, fans and sponsors burned rubber toward NASCAR. Ratings bottomed out, attendance declined, and the next generation of talented drivers stopped dreaming of running at Indy—except at NASCAR’s Brickyard 400. CART went bankrupt in 2003, but the IRL hasn’t capitalized. The circuit used to be dominated by boldface names like Mears, Rahal, Fittipaldi, and Unser. I’ll forgive you for not remembering that some guy named Buddy Rice won Indy last year. And by this time next week, you’ll have forgotten all about Dan Wheldon.
If we’re searching for an analogy for Patrick’s achievement, imagine if Annika Sorenstam placed fourth in a PGA Tour event after the top golfers broke away to form their own tour. Instead of besting Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, let’s say that Sorenstam knocked off Ty Tryon and Billy Andrade. A milestone in women’s sports? Sure. A feat that’s slightly tempered by the diluted level of competition? Most definitely.
The weaker field in this year’s Indy 500 didn’t simply make Danica Patrick’s driving easier. It also made it less of a hassle for her to find deep-pocketed sponsors and a savvy racing team. Among the very few skilled enough to drive at the professional level, the difference is support. In the glory days of Indy car racing, it would have been inconceivable for an inexperienced rookie like Patrick to sign on with a top team like Rahal-Letterman. It would be like an elite NASCAR team sending a go-kart driver to Daytona.
If you think Patrick’s talent and charisma would have been enough to win her a top ride in any era, just take a look at NASCAR’s Shawna Robinson. Like Patrick, Robinson is strikingly beautiful and has loads of talent—she sat on the pole in a Busch Series race (the rung just below NASCAR’s major leagues), the only woman ever to do so. But Robinson isn’t a star. Since NASCAR is stocked with talent, she’s been stuck on a small team with iffy sponsorship support. Racing for a second-tier team led to second-tier results, and Robinson lost her regular ride earlier this season. Had she gone into Indy racing, she’d be a legend by now.
Patrick is so marketable—she’s pretty, well-spoken, and American—it’s a wonder she wasn’t created in a lab. The most important factor in her success, though, is her ability to win quickly in racing’s equivalent of AA ball. She’ll also have the support of ESPN/ABC. ESPN wants back into NASCAR in the worst way, but Fox will spend whatever it takes to stay in, and NBC is drooling at the prospect of NASCAR/NFL double-headers on Sundays. So, what is the worldwide leader to do? Pump up the motor-sports alternative. The network has already been sending reporters to IRL races for SportsCenter despite a lack of any recognizable viewer interest. Patrick’s emergence will likely mean more programming: live qualifying runs, tech shows, reality shows, and IRL 2-Night or some such iteration. Be prepared for her mug to be as ubiquitous on ESPN as Stuart Scott’s.
Will the increased visibility of Patrick and the IRL mean more female drivers behind the wheel at a speedway near you? Along with Robinson, there are several women in the lower levels of NASCAR, including Deborah Renshaw, Tina Gordon, and Kelly “Girl” Sutton. However, female drivers are still a rarity at sprint-car and dirt tracks across the country, the place where novice drivers earn their stripes by swapping paint on weekend nights. And if the IRL capitalizes and open-wheel racing makes a comeback, Patrick’s star power may actually work against the women who idolize her. More money means more drivers and bigger sponsorship expectations. Inexperienced female drivers will probably be the first to feel the squeeze.
It’s impossible to know at this point if Patrick—or Shawna Robinson—is the real deal. What is clear is that Liz Johnson’s recent achievement was more impressive than Patrick’s finish at Indy. In March, Johnson made the final of a Pro Bowlers Association event, the first time a woman advanced anywhere near that far in a men’s tournament. Not only did Johnson finish higher than Patrick, she did so against the top bowlers on tour (the man who defeated Johnson, Tommy Jones, is a leading candidate for PBA Player of the Year). But you didn’t see Johnson on the cover of Sports Illustrated.