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?

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Danica Patrick

Race-car driver Danica Patrick says that she "can die happy" now that she's won a race on the Indy-car circuit. Patrick's victory at the Indy Japan 300, the first for a woman in the Indy Racing League, was perhaps her best performance since the 2005 Indianapolis 500, where she took fourth place as a rookie. After that race, Robert Weintraub praised Patrick's talent but also noted that the IRL has been watered down in recent years. "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," Weintraub wrote. The full article is reprinted below.

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.

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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.

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