Writers debate: Is Danica deserving?

From: Jen Engel

To: Bill Reiter, Reid Forgrave, Greg Couch, Jorge Mondaca

Y’all ever wonder why, when we all travel to LA for FOX Sports reasons, I never rent a car, never offer to drive, never offer my assessments on the driving of any of y’all?

It is best illustrated by this past weekend where — in driving to Lawrence for Kansas-Missouri basketball — I committed two unforgivable driving sins. I almost ran out of gas. And when I finally pulled into a gas station after a couple of very nerve-racking minutes, I had another problem. I had no idea how to open the gas tank. I searched the rental. I called my husband. I called my dad. I even tried to call Mazda. I finally asked the guy pumping gas next to me to help. Ten seconds later, it was open.

"Women drivers," he giggled.

I am a woman driver, in both the very literal and pejorative sense.

And women like me are why people looked at Danica Patrick crossways when she started in what is now the IndyCar Series and again when she decided to jump into NASCAR’s top circuit, her first Sprint Cup race being this very recent Daytona 500. Actually, with my very poor car knowledge, I am not going to take full responsibility for the doubters about the Sprint Cup jump. I mean, she had won a big bag of almost nothing in the IRL and NASCAR’s Nationwide series before being blessed with a good car, a good team and a fighting chance in the Daytona 500. The whole idea felt like a GoDaddy commercial.

I always enjoyed watching Danica, rooted for her too. The whole girl-power thing was nice, especially that Indy 500 where she threatened until the very end when she ran out of gas. I figured it was a matter of time.

What I cannot understand is who — besides the marketing people — thought putting her in Sprint Cup races was a good idea?

As I watched the Daytona 500, before the big fireball exploded and I eventually bailed, the announcers kept saying this was great practice for her and this was a great learning experience and how she would get the hang of it. Wait, what? In the most crashy weekend of Daytona in a long time, where a dude crashed into a jet dryer and ignited a section of the track in a gigantic fire, who exactly thought it was a good idea to turn this into practice time?

And how desperate is NASCAR to thrust this gimmick onto us?

I know, I know, none of Danica’s three — yes, three — crashes during the course of the weekend were her fault. It was bad luck. But her pounding on the steering wheel, and losing it after the second, looked like what you might expect from an in-car camera in my ride. I am not saying Danica is not ready because she is a girl. I am saying the girl is not ready.

So get her off the track.

And sell NASCAR the old-fashioned way, by racing.

From: Bill Reiter

Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down, Engel! You just committed some serious woman-on-woman crime there.

" . . . women like me are why people looked at Danica Patrick crossways when starting in what is now the IndyCar Series and again when she decided to jump into NASCAR’s top circuit."

Allow me, first of all, to dispute that with two personal, honest-to-God examples. First, I married up in almost every way, and driving is among them. My better half is a phenomenal driver who puts to shame the idea the ladies somehow have some disadvantage in driving compared to the men. And my second example — and oh Lord, how true this is — rests with Mr. Reid Forgrave, who is most likely the worst driver I have ever seen. A documentary of a day in the car with him would serve as the proper teaching tool on how not to drive for 15-year-olds everywhere.

So, like I said, let’s slow down on the talk about Danica being a woman and that having an impact on her performance. Look, I get it. Three crashes. No good. And I get that her status as a woman, and her sex appeal, and her appeal as something unique in NASCAR — all those things matter in getting her the attention and hype that’s afforded her this chance.

In all of those ways, the fact she’s a woman matters. In driving, it absolutely does not. Either she’s got the talent for this level or she doesn’t. Many men have failed before her. If she fails, it’ll be because she’s not good enough, not because she’s a woman. Let’s let her fail for a little longer, if indeed she does, before we revoke her NASCAR drivers license. Let’s hold back on the talk she’s a woman in evaluating her struggles. Let’s enjoy the anger she brings (I like it) and the fact she compels people to pay attention. In all honesty, I’m no Danica Patrick fan. But I’m a fan of letting her have a go at this.

I mean, really: If Reid Forgrave can drive on the highway every single day, there’s no reason Danica can’t whip around NASCAR’s tracks once a week for a while longer.

From: Reid Forgrave

My first reaction on tackling this topic? Don’t, Reid. Don’t touch this one with a 10-foot pole. After all, my mom’s an arch-feminist, a vehement supporter of women’s rights, the right-to-get-in-a-NASCAR-crash surely among them. And my wife gets visibly upset when I gripe about her driving. No need to anger the women in my life.

But, alas, it’s for the debate.

Let’s look past Bill’s over-the-top attempt at political correctness and pathetic (though, we should hope, honest) attempt at spousal ingratiation and get to the main point of what Jen wrote: She gamely and honestly admitted that her exploits behind the wheel are but one fact behind the unsightly Myth of the Female Driver. For this, Jen, I salute you. From the other side of the highway. While wearing a helmet.

Jen, of course, is getting at the fact that behind every stereotype, there is some truth. I’ll admit: I often fall into believing the stereotype of female drivers. They can be less aggressive; they can be more distracted. Shame on me. But I’ve had plenty of highway experiences with female drivers to back up this stereotype. Of course, I’ve also had plenty of highway experiences with male drivers that back up the unsightly Myth of the Male Driver — too aggressive, too self-centered, too prone to throwing the bird. (Having been on the phone with Bill many times as he’s flown into a maniacal driving rage, I assure you he falls right into this stereotype.)

Is Danica Patrick the stereotypical female driver? Of course not; the mere fact she’s racing with the boys makes that obvious. And no one should point to her three crashes and giggle "women drivers." That’s mean-spirited and provincial thinking. It’s the type of thinking of a bigot the world is passing by. We should all root for Danica because she is fighting huge odds and changing stereotypes. I know I am.

That doesn’t change one inconvenient fact: Danica "earned" her way into NASCAR not because of her driving but instead on account of her celebrity — a celebrity based on sex appeal and being different than the rest. So is this an example of political correctness getting in the way of fair competition? Is this an example of using affirmative-action-type thinking to assuage our own guilt over having these sorts of stereotypes? Perhaps this is when I should digress. I’ll let the rest of you tackle those questions. I’m not touching them with a 10-foot pole.

Hope my mom isn’t reading.

From: Greg Couch

People aren’t upset over Danica Patrick because she’s a woman driver. They’re upset that she’s a gorgeous woman driver, living on the gorgeous part while being handed the driver part.

If she wants to race NASCAR’s top series, that’s fine. She can drive. But she should work her way up like everyone else. The problem was that her team bought her way into the Daytona 500. She didn’t earn it. NASCAR has rules to allow big-name drivers to get in when they shouldn’t be there. It has happened plenty of times, but Patrick’s people took it to another level.

The sport embarrasses itself by allowing any driver into racing’s Super Bowl that way. In this case, Patrick didn’t even get in on merit of anything she has done behind a wheel. She got in because of how she looks on the hood in a bikini and stilettos. She is a serious driver, tough-minded, competitive. And she was working her way up to the top level through the Nationwide Series. Does anyone actually know that stuff about her? Does your daughter know?

When Patrick found herself in the Daytona 500, she lost her balance between sex symbol and driver. She became a gimmick. For whatever you thought of Anna Kournikova, she was once one of the world’s top tennis players and didn’t gimmick her way into the Wimbledon semifinals.

It has become way too acceptable for everyone to look for the easy way to the top. The fast way. The cheap way. I can’t blame Patrick for taking advantage of her chances. She should race Sprint Cup if she wants. But she sold out herself at Daytona, and allowed herself to be used. It took away from whom she really is, which is a tough, passionate, good driver with a lot of promise and marketability. Or maybe she isn’t who I thought she was.

From: Jason Whitlock

As a longtime Danica Patrick fan and a lifelong Indy 500 fan, I’ve become disenchanted with Danica.

I’m disappointed by her move to NASCAR. I wanted Danica to save open-wheel racing and restore the relevancy and prestige of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indy 500. I grew up in Indianapolis, rooting every May for Tom Sneva and Gordon Johncock and hating Johnny Rutherford. The Indy 500 is in my blood. I’ve been to the race as a fan and a journalist.

I feel betrayed by Danica. Had she moonlighted in NASCAR or even joined full time after winning the Indy 500, I’d have no real problem with her. But that’s not what happened. She bolted for more money after not winning squat. It’s inexcusable. She was backed for several years by Andretti Green Racing and later Andretti Autosports. That’s open-wheel royalty.

She’s spoiled.

Last week, she complained because a reporter called her "sexy." Really? She pretends to be naked in damn near every GoDaddy commercial and she’s upset because someone describes her as sexy.

Danica can drive. I don’t doubt her skill or courage. I question her resolve to finish what she started. Because she’s "sexy" she’ll always find a well-financed team to back her racing. And I’m sure the good folks at NASCAR will figure out a way to get her in the winner’s circle soon.

I’m now at peace with the fact she’ll never be an Indy 500 champion. Despite NASCAR’s hype, the greatest racers of all time are listed on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

From: Jorge Mondaca

OK, time for a bit of a reality check here since Danica’s results really don’t speak for themselves — especially during the season-opening Speedweeks at Daytona.

Sure, she had multiple crashes this weekend — but to be fair, so did Kasey Kahne (who seems to be the preseason dark horse now that he has joined powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports) and some guy named Jimmie Johnson (from what I’ve learned covering NASCAR for eight years, he’s pretty good).

On top of that, Patrick’s accidents weren’t of her own making — not the one in the Gatorade Duel qualifying race, not the Nationwide Series race (her teammate is to blame for that one) or the Lap 2 wreck in the Daytona 500.

Should she have been racing in The Great American Race? Absolutely. Sure, she’s still a novice in stock cars, but she has run two part-time seasons in the lower-level Nationwide Series, where she has shown continued improvement every time she returned to a track. Her Nationwide results are not what they should be for the attention she is getting — no argument there — but if you look back at that guy Johnson (you know, the one who won five straight championships and the same one who wrecked a few times at Daytona), he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in Nationwide, either, before getting promoted to Cup (in his first 39 Nationwide Series races, he scored just seven top-10 finishes. By comparison, Danica has three — including one top five, in 26 starts).

The buzz she generates is certainly helping advance her career — but some very wise people in the NASCAR garage will tell you that she is doing all the right things and asking all the right questions. She is making the most of her opportunity in NASCAR, and in the long run she will prove she deserves to be here.

It’s time to put all the “female driver” jokes to rest — she’s a racer. Let’s give her a bit of time before rushing to judgment.