Friday, February 22, 2013

Debating Danica's Importance, Role a Good Thing

Driver Danica Patrick, better known for her relationship with sponsor Go Daddy than for her accomplishments on the racetrack, starts from the pole Sunday during the Daytona 500.

It's a big deal, one that has gotten both NASCAR and Patrick and abundance of media attention since she sealed the top spot with her qualifying run last Sunday. Her accomplishment has been the focus of generally breathless, first-woman-ever, momentum-changing-moment-for-the-gender coverage.

That's just part of the story, though. It's also interesting to look and those telling the story ... and those not.

Patrick's success in NASCAR has been limited at best, and during her open-wheel racing career the high points were leading the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 (a first for a female driver) and finishing third in 2009. Yes, she won a race in Japan, but the Indy 500 efforts invariably get more notice.

In addition, the pole position for the Daytona 500 means little. In 54 previous races, just nine drivers have won after starting from the first spot.

Those facts and pervious performances should not take way from Patrick's accomplishment, though. She turned the fastest qualifying effort and deserves the spot. Drivers prove themselves on the track, and that's what she's done in this instance. Plus, few drivers jump into the Sprint Cup Series and make an immediate impact.

Still, the accompanying, mostly fawning, media attention for Patrick this week has been dizzying -- exploding well beyond the usually yawning response for most Daytona 500 pole winners. As a result, she has been positioned as a champion for women's sports, and a role model for young sports fans, for girls in general and for anyone who has ever been overlooked and undervalued.

While those might be interesting storylines, they're probably incorrect in her case.

Because of her looks and ability (although it's certainly weighted more in favor of the former than the later), Patrick has had opportunities to race on a regular basis during her career. Her success rate in open-wheel racing would've made it hard to continually find sponsors had she not been the Go Daddy girl. Still, she always had a ride.

Even in NASCAR this year, Patrick's team has its sponsorships set for the entire season -- something Hendrick Motorsports has not been able to do for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver 10 years in a row and has 19 career victories and more than $74 million in career earnings.

Patrick might be the face of an up-and-coming, well-funded racer, but it seems abrupt -- like an unexpected right turn while going 190 miles an hour at Daytona International Speedway -- for her to become the face of women's sports.

After all, many perceive her in a style-over-substance manner, auto racing's version of Anna Kournikova. While Patrick has battled that stereotype throughout her career and some might find it unfair because she has worked hard to improve as a racer, critics will either proclaim that standing criticism or whisper it (depending on who they are and the forum they have) until Patrick finds victory lane.

At the same time, it's not as if all others who champion the cause of women's sports have formed a consensus of support behind Patrick. For example, while ABC News was airing a segment on "World News Tonight" about Patrick to start the week and has had the Daytona 500 and Patrick featured prominently online all week, sources such as espnW have been silent by comparison.

Although ESPN's women's focused outlet champions many causes and competitors, Patrick has not been one of them. Perhaps that group best of all understands how incongruent it seems to have the woman who has spent much of her career building her image on semi-sexy Super Bowl commercials to all of a sudden become the face of women's competition.

For all she is, and all she might become, Patrick is not  Billy Jean King for a new generation -- and some members of the media seem to get that. At the same time, some media members want to chastise those who do not jump on Patrick's NASCAR bandwagon. And others simply want to hype a story that seems different.

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