Says Danica Patrick, "I actually feel very different than maybe the stereotypical breakthrough people do-‘I'm doing it for women,' and stuff like that...I don't feel like that at all. Because then it's only just fuelling the gender separation, again."
You've heard of Danica Patrick. Everyone's heard of Danica Patrick, the brand and the Indy driver. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Patrick was the first woman driver. Far from it - in fact, there are a number of women drivers and there have been for decades. Indeed, there should be more than the mere four competing in this year's Indy 500: a it's one sport in which men and women are matched completely evenly - well, as long as their cars are. So why is she the one we've all heard of?
Is Patrick the best? That's a loaded question, because in racing, that has a lot to do with the quality of the cars and the amount of money. Patrick certainly has the most of that. According to a piece in the New Yorker by Peter J Boyer that profiles Patrick's challenging attempted move into the world of Nascar and stockcar racing's different skillset, a lot of it comes down to Maxim. A former teen racing prodigy, Patrick was just one of many underachieving Indy drivers when she posed at 21 for the lad-mag.
Patrick's photograph, culled from the Internet, surfaced at a staff meeting, and she was judged attractive enough, in a wholesome, all-American sort of way, to be asked to pose. Patrick agreed, although she had not thought of herself as the pinup type. Just over ﬁve feet tall, and weighing a hundred and ten pounds, she has a ﬁgure perfectly sized to the tiny con- ﬁnes of a race-car cockpit. She had been competing against boys and men in karts and race cars since she was ten, and had cultivated a tomboyish, one-of- the-guys demeanor, which included a handshake grip...that was meant to leave an impression. The photo session did have an auto-motive theme-it took place at Fast Ashley's studio, in Brooklyn, which featured the proprietor Todd Ashley's classic-car collection-but Patrick's racing suit was not required. The wardrobe waiting for her included a red leather bustier, a red bikini, black leather hot pants, and vinyl stiletto-heeled boots. The photographer, George Holz, posed Patrick with a bright-yellow '57 chevy: sprawled over the hood; spread-eagled against the chrome grille; lolling in the driver's seat and bending toward a side-view mirror, her long raven hair framing a forbidding stare. The feature ("The hottest thing on wheels since roller Girl"), published in april of 2003, went viral, and Rahal selected Patrick to race in the atlantic championship series, the level just below the big-league open-wheel circuit.
Patrick was a star, and a respectable - if not distinguished - racing record helped her bring in endorsements ranging from deodorant to antifreeze. "She determined to market herself aggressively, fashioning what she refers to as the "Danica brand"-part girl next door, part speed-demon temptress-suited to a racing audience that is mostly male." Her "endorsement power" is ranked along with some of male athletics' biggest names, and certainly her move to Nascar was a boon for the sport.
Patrick has been marketed, down to the "tomboy - but still feminine!" image, in a way reminiscent of Amelia Earhart. Earhart was not the only woman flyer - in fact, she was bested in races more than once by women whose names we've forgotten - but she had the image, she had the marketing, and she had the money. And, of course, she opened doors. That, really, is the question that critics inevitably ask about Patrick: is her exposure, at any cost, a good thing for women drivers?
Other drivers don't seem sure. The article quotes Janet Guthrie, whom the author terms "the pioneer female racer of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, who once built her own engines and
managed her own team." (Her 1977 driving suit is in the Smithsonian.) In stark contrast to Patrick, Guthrie gave up her career and raced on a shoestring in a hostile environment. She says, "I'm not, and have not been, happy with those provocative photos that will be floating around on the Web forever...It's sort of been the gestalt forever and ever that women have nothing to sell but their bodies." Patrick for her part is of that school that finds questions about representing women (let alone, presumably, the F-word) irritating. She says she resents being pigeon-holed as a "woman racer" and says "I'm much more for people in general just being successful at whatever it is that they want to do," which is either disingenuous, when one considers that other woman drivers who haven't posed in lad-mags are unknown; or sage, when one considers that other woman drivers who haven't posed in lad-mags are unknown. She adds,
It helped me get the ride. The bottom line is, it takes money to go racing. If there's money there, and it puts me in a really good car, then I can go show what I can do." Regarding the objectification of women, she says, "I think people say that it takes away from what I do, it takes away from the driving, because people see that side of things, and it kind of overpowers what I'm doing. So, yeah. I do catch flak.
Jane Guthrie, meanwhile, comes from the generation in which one didn't have the luxury of casting off the "breakthrough role-model" label, because it was true. "It came to be a responsibility that I felt that I had to accept and try to live up to," she says.
The fact that Patrick has not recently won a major Indy race, and that she seems ill-prepared to take on Nascar (a move which reads slightly like Michael Jordan's foray into baseball) leaves her open to this flak. At the recent Indy qualifiers, Patrick was booed when she blamed a poor result on her mechanics; two other women, incidentally, finished well ahead of her. (One hopes that people remember both these things, even if Patrick has disavowed any responsibility for how women as a whole are viewed.) One of the more interesting elements of the piece is the bit that covers another, lesser-known and less well-funded driver, 23-year-old Alli Owens. We meet her quietly working on her car as Patrick is feted by the media; Owens is presented as a legitimate stock-driving fan who's paid her dues. And while that dichotomy may seem too easy, and the "good-girl versus sex kitten" setup a dangerous one, one thing is telling: "Janet Guthrie watched Patrick's first stock-car race on television, and found herself rooting for Alli Owens."
Four Women, Including Danica Patrick, Set To Contend In 2010 Indianapolis 500 [Washington Post]
Changing Lanes [The New Yorker]