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Sports

The Fast and the Curious

Chip Compton

Media Darling Danica Patrick may never take the checkered flag. But does that matter?

Indy Racing League (IRL) driver Danica Patrick's web site has a section titled "Victory Lane". It contains this information: "This section will be out of the pits soon." Sarcastically, one might ask, will it really? Patrick's site is flashy and full of color and lots of cool designs, but it doesn't contain a lot of substance. (That is, unless you count the revelation that "she has a pet miniature schnauzer named Billy".) In fact, a cynic might be tempted to liken the fluff-over-substance work as a reflection of her career. But the bigger question is, does her winning really matter?

Patrick truly came into the public eye when she took the lead of the 2005 Indianapolis 500. If you were not a follower of the Toyota Atlantic Series (in which she was the only driver to finish every lap in 2004) or a reader of FHM magazine (in which you could have found her scantily clad body sprawled on the hood of a car), you probably had never heard of her. She captured the public's imagination with those few laps and subsequently stole the thunder from eventual 500 champion Dan Wheldon, appearing on the cover of the following week's Sports Illustrated. Patrick had arrived, and plenty of us were curious.

Who was this petite, attractive, articulate, composed woman who had plopped herself right into the middle of auto racing's premier open-wheel series? A driver with considerable experience, Patrick apparently had the chops to pilot a car for one of the preeminent teams in IRL -- Rahal Letterman. She took the series by storm. Upon her arrival, her merchandise outsold (and still does) other drivers', and television ratings have been up since she came on the scene. This attention is good for everyone involved with IRL, because with the attention come the dollars. Our curiosity with her seems endless -- here we are, nearly two years later, and Patrick is still one of the biggest stories in the racing world. But she's also still without a win. As such, the attention paid to her, while warranted as curiosity, has yet to be justified from a professional standpoint.

Driving a race car, of course, is not as easy as it looks. It's difficult to understand everything that a race-car driver must take into consideration during any given second, let alone for a three-hour race. But while it is a difficult task, when all is said and done, it is a learned experience. Similar in the training of motor skills to a tennis serve or catching a fly ball (though significantly more dangerous than either), driving a race car does not require especially distinct physical attributes, like height (basketball) or strength (football). Through repetition, the argument could be made, these skills could be taught to anyone who could thus become a professional race-car driver. As such, it's difficult to judge the individual talent of each race car driver. That's because the sport is machine-dependent. Even if your driver is the second coming of Rick Mears, if he (or she) doesn't have a competitive automobile, your team will never take the checkered flag.

This is where judgment of Patrick becomes a little tricky. After a two-year stint with Rahal Letterman, she now has upped public expectation by recently signing with Andretti Green, to which she brings a major sponsor in Motorola and their $21 million in funding. While she was competitive in 2006 (eight top 10 finishes), Andretti Green is a different animal than the ordinary IRL team, with four cars in contention each race and a formidable rival for the dominating two-headed beast of Marlboro Team Penske and Target Chip-Ganassi Racing. For those who have been babbling that Patrick has never won a race, they may get to see just such an outcome in 2007.

But even still, will that justify anything? In 2006, a grand total of six drivers won IRL races. Winning these races is a difficult task. It truly is a team sport, dependent on equipment, pit crews, driver ability and -- you guessed it -- money. And since each of these components has a tenuous connection to one another, it is a special and rare thing when the checkered flag falls for someone outside of the oligarchy of power that dominates IRL.

Patrick happens to be zero for 30 in her career starts. But fellow driver Ed Carpenter has never won one, either. He's zero for 48. And Vitor Meira, while being in contention many times, has never won a race, either (zero for 60). So why aren't we saying that Carpenter and Meira can't compete with the big boys? Could it be because of their relative anonymity? The ordinary person (even if that person is a sports fan) wouldn't know these drivers if they met them on the street, even though they have successful driving experience. Of course, Ed Carpenter doesn't pose in a swim suit, but that's not really the point, is it? Or is it? Our fascination with what's novel, combined with a healthy dose of sex appeal, is what seems to be driving the continued discussion of Patrick's abilities.

Take the allegations of her so-called height and weight advantage, for example. Cockpits are small, yes, which would seem to be to a female's advantage, but the toleration of G forces (the force of acceleration on a body due to gravity) is a bit more accurate a measure of potential success in a race car than the driver's possession of a Y chromosome. According to Capt. Barbara A. Wilson, USAF (Ret.), height, not strength or gender, is the most negative factor in a pilot's ability to tolerate G stress. Because women have smaller body masses, the shorter distance between their hearts and brains makes it easier for them to counteract G forces. And really, that's what an open-wheeled race car basically is: a ground-bound jet with a pilot. According to this evidence, height is a deciding factor in determining success, more than weight or (sorry sexists) even how attractive the pilot is. And while Patrick is without a doubt the lightest driver in the series, why did NASCAR driver Robby Gordon choose to direct his cockamamie vitriol about an apparent weight advantage at a woman? After all, some driver has always weighed the least of those racing in the series. Wouldn't that team always have had the advantage, regardless of whether the featherweight was a male or a female? It looks like a more logical complaint would have been filed when 5-foot-3-inch Teo Fabi was driving. Was that fair to all the 6-footers? The fact of the matter is that Patrick has the strength and endurance to drive these machines. She rarely crashes and almost always finishes the race running, which is important to both team owners and sponsors. And even after you calculate driver's height, weight, skill, experience, and knowledge into the equation, the race car doesn't know if the driver is a sexist, small-minded chauvinist or an articulate, attractive woman who's comfortable using her sex appeal as a marketing tool.

Still, without a win to her credit, is Patrick destined to become the next Anna Kournikova? Hailed as a tennis hottie but denigrated for her inability to win singles titles, Kournikova has made a career out of playing off her looks. Still, if she chooses to make her fortune in this fashion, so be it. Kournikova owes us nothing, no matter how much fans and media clamor about her paucity of victories. And Danica Patrick is in the same boat. While she does seem willing to trade on her femininity, should she be any different than any of the rest of us who would strike when the iron was hot? The problem is that, in this celebrity-obsessed and media-saturated culture we live in, we feel that we actually know celebrities and, because of that, we project our thoughts and ambitions onto them. How many times have we said or heard "he should retire" or "he's past his prime" or "nobody's worth that money". Well, it's his career and he can retire when he wants; he may be past his prime but he still is productive; and apparently he is worth the money because the market is bearing it.

The fact is, Patrick doesn't have to apologize for anything, and she owes us nothing. She happens to be a young woman who drives race cars and endorses a variety of products for a living. If she uses her looks at certain times, who are we to question? Do we all not use whatever strengths we have to our advantage? Granted, it was normal in the beginning to be interested in her as the only woman driver in IRL. But that interest, whether warranted or not, should not devolve into a misinformed diatribe against her driving skills because she has yet to make it to Victory Lane. Nobody is railing against Carpenter and Meira. And anyway, Patrick already has won in those most American of ways: name recognition, Q ratings, and success on Madison Avenue. All of this equals money in the bank, and who among us wouldn't want that kind of success?

And as a 24-year-old racer driving for one of the top teams in IRL, the odds would dictate that we eventually will see Patrick take the checkered flag sometime in the next year or two. And if that happens, she will likely do so with a command of one of the most complex machines in all of racing. Her strength and endurance will -- one day -- be in ready enough supply for her to beat all the men chasing her. And whether she poses in a swimsuit the next day or meets with her chief engineer to plan for the following race is really incidental. She's already proven that she has both flash and substance, and probably will be around for the long haul in one form or another.

And if that one, all-important victory doesn't come? Patrick is a young woman participating in the vocation of her choice. She has made a fortune for herself and for those in her wake. She apparently has the world by the tail. If she can't get to Victory Lane, so be it. It's her life, not ours. After all, her winning a race would mean more to her, not us. Because of that, whether Danica Patrick ever wins, or just continues to grace magazine covers, it just doesn't matter.

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