Politics Wednesday – Feminism, NASCAR, and Danica Patrick

Maybe the brouhaha of the past few weeks over contraception, transvaginal ultrasounds, and aspirin between the knees has put my inner feminist on edge. And rightly so. The “battles” of access to contraception so you don’t have to opt for an abortion and women having say over what goes in their bodies, I thought had been fought and won a long time ago. Regardless, I’m ultra-sensitive to any hint of gender inequality lately.

Now, you might wonder why I’d be surprised at juvenile remarks aimed at newly minted NASCAR driver Danica Patrick by male NASCAR fans. It’s sadly true that my racing buds are notoriously gender-equality challenged.

Patrick, who raced a limited number of Nationwide Series races in 2011, often had trouble fitting in the No. 7 GoDaddy car fronted by JR Motorsports. Other male drivers were in the car when she wasn’t, and though most racers are not big guys, she had to deal with issues of being able to reach the controls. (As a woman pilot, I struggled with the fact that most small airplanes were built with tall, long-legged men in mind, so I can empathize.) There was an exchange on the radio last year with her complaining about being hot while moving slow on a caution (remember, most of her racing was in open, Indy-style cars) and her crew chief explaining to her how to use her hand at the small, side window to “cup” a breeze into the car.

“I can’t reach it,” she said.

The color commentators proceded to make comments about how she needed to learn how to take the heat,  their premise being the spoiled, Indy driver, famous for her allegedly prurient GoDaddy commercials, shouldn’t be in the car if she couldn’t hack it.

Now, Patrick is far from perfect or from being a top racer. In her Indy Car career, she had but one win, in a little-known race in Japan, but she did have a lot of top 10 and 15 finishes. More importantly, she never gave up. When she acted with the aggression male drivers ooze, she was a bitch. When her soft side came out–weeping over Dan Wheldon’s death last year–she was too weak-willed.

Patrick gets the attention because she’s in a sport that has admitted few women then excoriated those who did get in. She’s a different type of female racer–she can take it and dish it back. She has been known to climb from a wrecked car, toss her helmet aside, and corner the perpetrator of the wreck on pit road–just like, say, Kyle Busch. So, the men of NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup need to understand she can give as good as she gets.

In 2012, Patrick will be a full-time Nationwide Series driver for JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and his sister, Kelli, herself a former driver. Dale Sr. once remarked of his three children who raced–Kelli, Kerry, and Dale–she was probably the best. Kelli Earnhardt is a shrewd racing businesswoman, having made JR Motorsports one of the premiere owners in Nationwide in just a few years. She brooks no nonsense from her drivers, her brother included. Kelli has indicated that before Patrick became a part-time employee, she only knew her by reputation, the one perpetrated by mostly male racing sports journalists. When introduced to Patrick, Kelli found her a modest, caring, congenial person, willing to work hard and take instruction. In other words, a model race car driver. Patrick will also drive in a limited number of Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing, including the Daytona 500.

Patrick isn’t going to take NASCAR by storm in one year. She will have failures–big, obvious ones–and she will have modest success, like any driver male or female who’s come before her. As someone who was a fan of the amazing Shirley Muldowney, I’m looking forward to rooting for Patrick this season. Hey, I’m a Dale, Jr., fan; I’m accustomed to disappointment.

So, I was excited to see Patrick had won the pole for the season-opening Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide Race this past Saturday at Daytona. “Winning the pole” means having the fastest time around the track in qualifying, so she was faster than everyone else–all men. Some of that is the car–perfectly tuned and balanced. A lot of it is the driver.

Then, came the juvenile remarks–“Heh, heh, that’s not her first ‘pole.'” Or the insidious–“Ah, the guys were told to slow down so she could get it. It’s a publicity stunt.” The prurience or sour grapes aside, she deserves a chance, like any other driver.

Though it has expanded its outreach to minorities and has some Hispanic and African-American drivers in its smaller, local racing series, NASCAR is still way too white and male where drivers are concerned. That will change. It is changing, far too slow for some of us, but change is incremental. And I’ve been a fan long enough to remember when drivers of a particular era said similar disparaging things about black drivers trying to break into NASCAR.

Patrick’s drafting partner nudged her a little too hard a few laps before the midway point of the Nationwide race, and after contacting the wall, she had to go to the garage for extensive repairs to the car. She re-entered the race 49 laps down with 30 laps to go and finished in 38th place–not last but not the win she coveted. Two days later, a massive wreck on lap two of the Daytona 500 again sent her to the garage, but she returned, 63 laps down, to finish 38th in a field of 43.