Danica offers hope for other female racers
Jennifer Jo Cobb has spent the last 18 years trying to build a racing career.
Alli Owens knows how to work on the cars and the nuances of a slight change, like how an air pressure adjustment can alter how hers feels.
Across the country, numerous young women are heading into their mid-teens looking forward to an upcoming stock car race.
Could they be impacted by Danica Patrick and whatever level of success she achieves? Will women like Cobb and Owens gain more attention because Patrick is now competing part time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series?
Just three races into her NASCAR career, and easing into a break from the sport while she returns to her native IndyCar Series, Patrick has already become the fodder of expert analysis — both from those working in the sport and those spending their weekends following it. Her every move documented, her successes and setbacks chronicled, she is arguably the most watched Nationwide racer in the sport.
A female racer trying to break into the predominantly male world of NASCAR’s top tiers of competition, she is both watched and studied by those sharing or following her path to the upper echelon of stock car competition.
Not only does she gain celebrity status each time she heads to the track, she also carries the weight and pressure of being the top female racer to enter the sport in recent memory — and one who is watched and judged and critiqued at every turn.
Even women racers who are forging their own independent paths find themselves watching Patrick a little more closely.
That she has completed her debut races and gotten those out of the way should do nothing to stem the attention aimed in her direction once she returns in June. Until then, there will be more analysis, grading and study of what she has achieved to date.
And as those watching the melee surrounding her debut quickly point out, that is getting a little ahead of the game — and is an area rife with speculation and varying levels of criteria.
Lyn St. James, who works with several up-and-coming racers through her Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation, points out the pitfalls of making outside assessments when it comes to evaluating a driver’s success. That is perhaps especially true of someone that is learning the nuances of cars and tracks and a new team all at once.
After all, there’s a lot that goes into the learning process when it comes to making a transition to NASCAR. St. James remembers that team owner Jack Roush once told her that it takes about 1,000 laps at a track for a driver to really master it. Drivers who enter the Nationwide ranks after competing in ARCA or some other stock car series have some of those laps, though they, too, must adjust to the heavier car.
Patrick didn’t have that going for her, which further makes any evaluation of her success at this point simply too small of a sampling on which to offer judgment. Further, how does one measure success at this point?
“That’s probably the problem is that everybody’s going to have a different measure of what that success is,” St. James says. “And we’ll listen to it every day. … Everybody is going to be measuring that success differently and Danica’s own measure of success will evolve, I think we’ve already seen that.”
In some ways, success in racing should be easy to measure. But even a swift look at results — for any driver — can be misleading for a significant stretch of time.
“The beauty about racing is that really success should be measured by the stopwatch and by your results,” St. James says. “That’s one of the things that I love about the sport is that really everybody … can have an opinion about what it is you’ve done, but the reality is it is the stopwatch and your results your measure of success, not anybody’s opinion.
“The problem is how long does it take you to achieve that and how tough are you, how committed are you, how patient are you, to stay the course to achieve the results on the stopwatch and the race results.”
None of that can be assessed in a trio of races, possibly even in an initial season of part-time competition. St. James sees that happening among others, though.
Other racers understand that as well. Learning the nuances of the stock cars is a long-term process, something that some have spent their lives perfecting and still find new lessons waiting. Owens, 21, is running select Auto Racing Club of America races for Venturini Motorsports this season.
Owens, who came through the ranks working on her own cars, says that it’s difficult to tell how long it will take any one person to adapt to the stock cars.
“I’ve been in a full-sized stock car since I was 12 years old and I’m still learning to develop a feel for the ARCA cars, these heavier cars at these speedways and knowing what the cars really need to drive it at that capability,” she says.
She raced against Patrick at Daytona and was running as high as third in that race before finishing 23rd — and admits that she’s paying a little closer attention to Patrick than she might some other racers.
“You almost kind of have to, really, because she’s kind of doing what I want to do or what all these other females out there who drive race cars want to do,” Owens says. “She has the golden opportunity and is really trying to test the waters out … So yeah, definitely been watching and learning from it and also just kind of seeing how she does.”
Whether or not she can pave a clearer path for women into the sport is something drivers aren’t certain about yet — some point out it could take more than one top female driver, though they concede that generally if someone can do it, Patrick is that driver. What is clear is that she is making deeper inroads into the sport than most have — and that the eyes of other women who have been battling for years to break into NASCAR are watching her closely.
And some of them already recognize that Patrick and her path to NASCAR — and racing in general — already represent a newer breed. How her success could benefit those who will now try to follow her path is illustrated in Cobb’s career path — and the differences she sees in her younger and newer competitor.
“I started in NASCAR’s grassroots level at the very bottom of the totem pole, I started in a four-cylinder Pony Stock,” says 36-year-old Cobb, who has run a few races in the Nationwide Series and is competing in ARCA and the Truck series this season. “… For 18 years, I’ve just never given up.
“If you compare the way Danica was raised to the way I was raised, she was raised to do this and I was told it was pretty much impossible and now here we both are.”