Do Women Belong in Racing?

There is an age-old question that will probably plague human curiosity (and laboratories) until our race perishes: when it comes to X, are men or women more capable? There have been multitudes of studies on perception, reaction times, pain-thresholds, physical, mental, emotional capabilities, etc. on both sexes to determine who is better equipped to do certain activities. Research conclusions that sought to divide the sexes by suitability have been refuted as both men and women have defied science and stereotypes. Worlds that have been traditionally “male-dominated” or “female-dominated” have collided and our stereotypical thinking has been challenged and overturned.  Dangerous sports, such as racing, still seem to be firmly rooted in the “male-dominated” category, but women have slowly begun to infiltrate the paddock walls.

We oooh and ahh over females on the racetrack, but women in fast cars are not new. In fact, in the past few decades, several female racers have set records and taken top honors:

1.      Shirley Muldowney was a pioneer in drag racing and the first woman to obtain a license from the National Hot Rod Association.  She has a resume of accomplishments and awards that reads like a menu from Bubba Gump Shrimp. She was a real oil-burning lioness.

2.      Janet Guthrie was the first female to qualify and compete in both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 and to drive in a NASCAR Winston Cup superspeedway race. In 2006, she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

3.      Lyn St. James started in the Indianapolis 500 seven times (Danica Patrick is currently tied with her record). She has two wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona and one at the 12 Hours of Sebring.  She also competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice.

The racing world is all abuzz because something seemingly amazing happened. Two weeks ago Danica Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500. Now, I do not mean to beat down Patrick’s accomplishment — she has had a tough road trying to pave her way through the racing world — but a woman taking the pole isn’t an event we need to chalk up to the racing gods as a miracle or something the media needs put on the front page. Why? First, reread the ground-breaking women listed above! Second, she’s done it before. Why then all the hullabaloo? This is exactly the problem and the point. Let’s pretend Danica Patrick was a male.

If Mr. Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500, would mainstream newspapers publish several articles exploring the “meaning” behind his qualifying time? No, probably not. The public wouldn’t care for more than 10 minutes, and subsequent articles would probably be a short blog on the top three qualifiers and the weather for race day. Nothing over-spectacular or exciting; after all, this is qualifying, not the actual race.

However, since we are talking about Patrick, a femaleracecar driver, qualifying times and other seemingly innocuous actions have taken on a new meaning. Patrick has gone down in the record books as being the first for X, Y, and Z, but it’s because she was the first female to do so — not necessarily because she was the first. Patrick entered racing like any other car enthusiast addicted to speed: she loved the thrill and she wanted to make driving her craft. She has just as much heart, talent, and courage to drive a four-wheeled missile at 200 mph as her male counterparts and I think she should be treated like the rest of the drivers. She is currently measured within the context of her gender, not wholly by her skills and her ability to win races.

Patrick has been given the title of “most successful female in American open-wheel racing.” I am currently rolling my eyes—not because I think Patrick is not successful, but because this title belongs to someone who has won one race: the 2008 Japan Indy 300.  One race.  I think she, and other female drivers, can do better than one win in order to have the title of “most successful female.”  Male drivers who win one race are not given titles — they don’t receive a ribbon for participation. Of course Patrick can win a race. She has two hands, two feet, and the will to do so—just like her male competitors.  Congratulations on your race, Danica Patrick.  Now go out, go give ‘em hell, and do it again!

In addition to “most successful woman in American open-wheel,” Patrick also holds the record for “most consecutive finishes in IndyCar.” Again, I don’t mean to diminish this accomplishment, because she is currently beating the boys, but let’s break this down. She holds this title because out of the 115 races she started, she finished 50 of them in a row. This statistic means that she started in a race and managed to budget her tires, not crash, not get disqualified, and survive the g-forces in order to cross the finish line after a certain amount of laps, 50 times in a row. Honestly, my gut reaction is so say, “So what?” Yes, it takes both mental and physical strength, as well as sheer talent, to operate a racecar; but the fact that Patrick finished 50 races in a row, and won one, doesn’t mean she’s the epitome of success. If her statistics for “race wins” were compared with a male driver with similar figures, the male driver would be considered mediocre. One of the greatest F1 drivers of all time, Michael Schumacher, had 307 starts in his career–with 221 finishes in the points, 24 consecutive finishes in the points, and 68 poles. Oh, he also had 91 wins.

Are hard stats like “number of wins” only important when applied to male drivers? I thought racing was about winning? I don’t mean to sound like a shallow jerk who thinks winning is everything, but the POINT of racing is to finish first. We have made Patrick into a media darling even though she has only had three poles and one win. She has most frequently graced the top of a statistical racing chart if it measured “most buzz” or “driver popularity.”  Unfortunately, she gets a lot of her attention because she is female. Patrick is more famous for being famous than for being a successful (aka “winning”) racecar driver. I think Patrick considers herself capable of taking the checkered flag; therefore, we don’t need to pretend that she’s a capable driver — she can prove that herself.

Patrick’s checkered flag in Japan in 2008 is proof that women can win and that they belong in racing — they’ve proven they can do everything a male driver can. They can qualify, drive, and win; that’s the point, right? Danica Patrick belongs on the pole — because she had the fastest qualifying lap. She also belongs on that track because she has demonstrated that she has talent, and nerve, by merely showing up to races with the intention of driving and trying her hardest to beat the competition — just like everyone else.

If the media and racing world really want to be fair and supportive of female racers, they need to stop coddling them and handing out points for effort. Female drivers should be held accountable for their failures, in addition to being celebrated for their wins. They shouldn’t become heroes because they are a minority on the racetrack. They should become heroes in the racing world because they are legends in the cockpit.