Danica Patrick just won her first race, but is she a great driver?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
April 21 2008 4:09 PM

Queen for a Day

Danica Patrick just won her first race, but is she a great driver?

(Continued from Page 1)

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.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 1:52 PM Julian Casablancas’ New Album Sounds Like the Furthest Thing From the Strokes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.