TORONTO - There has been an interesting, some might call it shocking, debate in the social media world over the past few days on the merits of Danica Patrick’s IndyCar career as she prepares to announce she is leaving open wheel to go NASCAR racing full time in 2012.
That announcement is expected Thursday in Phoenix.
I say shocking because central to the debate is the assertion that Patrick should not be accorded the same credit for her racing career as other drivers because she used her sex appeal to further herself in the sport.
More shocking, perhaps, because some of the participants in the mostly anti-Patrick debate were and are IndyCar insiders.
It was argued that Patrick would never have made it to the level of fame she has if she hadn’t posed in a bikini in various glossy magazines.
Several in the debate compared her to Anna Kournikova, the tennis player who never won a tournament, yet achieved a level of notoriety similar to Patrick because of her beauty.
Well, first, those who argued that should know better. Patrick has won at the top level of racing and has been involved in several great finishes where she battled the best IndyCar had to offer.
Another point that was put out there was that more recent female drivers like Simona de Silvestro are not given the same media attention as Patrick because they refuse to go the bikini route to get noticed.
Well, excuse me, but Patrick got famous when she became the first female to lead a lap and almost win at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005.
And with all due respect to de Silvestro, she hasn’t come near that level of excellence yet in her young career.
When she does I am certain she will get just as much publicity and fame as Patrick.
The thing about such debate is that it hovers just barely outside the line that separates fair comment from offensive sexism.
It is the kind of ugly, nasty sexism that implies that women cannot compete on a level playing field with men. And that those that do, must use their sex appeal to get to the top of their sports.
But in the end nothing that is written here is going to change the opinion of Patrick haters who close their minds to any point that doesn’t mesh with their own already established odorous prejudices.
Let’s face it, there is no denying Patrick is a capable and talented race car driver, period. That debate is a non-starter.
Just look at her body of work, so to speak.
In her first year (2003) in the Atlantics series she finished sixth in points, best ever by a female in that series to that point.
The next season she became the first female to win a pole position in the Atlantics at Toronto.
In 2005 she made history by qualifying fourth and finishing fourth, while leading a lap, at the Indianapolis 500. Patrick went on to finish ninth in the championship that season, the first female to crack the Top 10 in the history of the sport.
Then she became the first woman to win a race in a sanctioned major auto racing series when she won the Honda Indy Japan at Motegi in 2008.
Her first foray into NASCAR in 2010 was berated because she failed to get top finishes in her initial 13-race season.
Proof, the naysayers said, that she was a bad driver.
Well, this season, she has come back and been a contender in almost all of her NASCAR races, with a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas, and one lap from victory at fabled Daytona International Speedway in July before she got caught up in someone else’s wreck.
It is not to say she is the second coming of A.J. Foyt, but she certainly is a lot more accomplished than the E.J. Visos, Charlie Kimballs or Takumo Satos of the racing world.
And those that would believe that the IZOD IndyCar series will be better off without Patrick must not have been paying attention when less than 10,000 fans showed up this season at Milwaukee and New Hampshire with Patrick on the grid.
You have to wonder how many will show up next season when she isn’t there.
Danica Patrick’s career stats
IZOD IndyCAR Series
Year Wins Top 5s Top 10s Earnings
2005 0 2 7 $1,048,755
2006 0 2 8 $920,505
2007 0 4 11 $1,182,055
2008 1 3 10 $1,316,915
2009 0 5 10 $808,305
2010 0 3 8 $367,305
2011 0 1 7 $331,745
Totals 1 20 61 $5,975,585
NASCAR Nationwide Series
2010 0 0 0 $365,418*
2011 0 1 3 $211,298*
Totals 0 1 3 $576,716
* Part Time