In every professional situation, women have always called for recognition based on their skillset and abilities rather than their gender, and rightfully so. That's a human right. Motorsports is no exception: Another male-dominated arena in which women just want to compete and be assessed fairly based on their ability. Yet it seems like a lot of the headlines you read about a female driver or engineer are written simply because they are women, and not because of their accomplishments. That narrative is beginning to change with the recent successes of drivers like Christina Nielsen and Katherine Legge, as well as the engineering feats of those like Leena Gade, who was chief engineer for a couple of Audi’s wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But when it comes to breaking down barriers for women in motorsports, I believe the conversation must start and end with Danica Patrick. You may not have heard of Nielsen, Legge, and Gade, but we all know Danica.
In 2004, a young IndyCar rookie driving for Rahal-Letterman racing turned the entire sports world on its ear by qualifying and finishing in the top 10 at the Indianapolis 500. Sure, there have been incredible rookie performances at The Brickyard before, but none by anyone named Danica. This young woman had not only qualified for the world’s biggest race, but she hung right with series stalwart Scott Dixon. She gave Indy legend Helio Castroneves a run for his money. She pushed eventual race winner Dan Wheldon to the brink, leading the race with under 20 laps to go before being passed for the lead. And, she was attractive to boot. Her 4th place Indy finish earned her late-night talk show appearances, the first Sports Illustrated cover for an IndyCar racer in years and years, and it officially birthed “Danica Mania.” This fateful summer launched Danica into the upper echelon of motorsports superstardom and spawned a 15-year driving career split almost evenly between IndyCar and NASCAR. Danica recognized the stage she created and used to emphatically champion causes for women and to inspire young girls to go after their dreams. She has multiple endorsement deals, a modeling career, and has written books on a number of different subjects, all of which she has worked for and earned. So why am I writing this piece? What’s my beef with Danica? Well, its starting to appear that she got her wish. People have started recognizing her for her accomplishments and not her gender. And suddenly, Danica doesn't seem so happy.
It was announced late last year that 2018 would be Danica’s last year behind the wheel. It had become increasingly difficult to find sponsorship for her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing, a 4-car team considered one of NASCAR’s best, and her contract wasn’t renewed. She decided to enter the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, then call it a career. Recently, she sat down with Graham Bensinger for his interview show (if you’re wondering who Graham Bensinger is, he’s a guy who interviews people for a show with his name on it). Anyways, Danica decided that this interview would be a good opportunity to throw some shade at everyone she had encountered throughout career, and that’s where this blog really gets going.
When talking about her time in IndyCar, Patrick dropped this hot take:
“There’s definitely a lot of posing [in IndyCar],” she said. “I always felt like in IndyCar everybody was like, who could go to the hauler earlier to show they were more committed… People would not have a drink the entire season because it was the season.”
So, let me get this straight, Danica: People are “posers” because they are committed to their craft? Because they know how competitive any professional sport is and want to make sure that nothing compromises their potential success? For everyone’s information (including Danica’s apparently), IndyCar’s substance abuse policy prohibits alcohol consumption by drivers and officials in the 12-hour window prior to any on-track activity, and has a blood alcohol threshold of 0.02%. So, basically that means if they have a single shot or one glass of wine on a race weekend and then get tested, they’re fucked. Hell, splashing extra mouthwash might get a driver into some hot water if he or she doesn’t time it right. I honestly don’t understand where a quote like this would even come from, outside of bitterness and malice. It has nothing to with anything, and its a cheap shot against an entire group of people who are doing the most they can to NOT put their careers in jeopardy.
The thing is, Danica actually fared quite well in her 7 full seasons as an IndyCar driver. Her 11th place career average finish is better than three of the series’ most popular current drivers: James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti all have a career average finish of 12th. Her IndyCar career netted 3 poles, 7 podium finishes, and 1 monumental win – in Motegi, Japan - the first by a woman in any major racing series. But Hinchliffe has 6 wins with 12 podiums, and Rahal has 6 wins with 23 podiums, so they are delivering the goods more than Danica did. She wants to be remembered because of her accomplishments, right? Well, If she hadn't jetted off to NASCAR, I honestly think her IndyCar wins and podiums would’ve become more frequent, and she would have had a long and successful IndyCar career. In a sport that’s dying for more attention right now, she would’ve had a job for as long as she wanted it. But alas, the big cars and bigger paychecks of NASCAR came calling, so she turned her attention from open wheel to tin-tops.
In 191 races over 7 NASCAR seasons, Danica finished in the top ten 7 times. She never finished in the top five and she never won a race. Her average starting position in those 7 seasons was 25th, and her average finish was 24th. Those averages are right in the range of guys like AJ Allmendinger, Regan Smith, and Trevor Bayne. Ever heard of them? Exactly. But those three drivers have each won races. Bayne even won NASCAR’s crown jewel, the Daytona 500, in 2011. But all three of them are out of jobs, just like Danica is. And none of those drivers had even a fraction of the star power that Danica did. That seems to be something like equality to me, or at least its equal assessment. Not to Danica, all of a sudden. In this same interview with who’s-his-face, Patrick stated that (I’m paraphrasing here) not everyone on her Stewart-Haas Racing team “believed in her,” so they wouldn’t put as much effort into building her cars compared to her teammates. She said that her hiring was convenient to the team because she brought her own sponsorship with her and when that contract was up, the team wasn’t motivated to go search for more funding. Allow me to tackle these two points separately.
Regarding Teams Building Cars: The benefit for these “mega” teams, like Stewart-Haas Racing in NASCAR or Andretti Autosport in IndyCar which each run 4 or more cars each season, is data. In every on-track session, the teams can try 4 or more different car setups, one for each car, and then come back and compare results to determine the best setup for that weekend. If there is a new part or technique that was being worked on at the team headquarters during the week, one car on the team will be designated “the guinea pig” for the others. If the new stuff works, the team applies it to all the cars. If not, so be it. Every large race team has the “developmental” car, even two car teams. When determining which car that will be, a team normally makes sure that the drivers who have the best shot to win races and championships aren't given any of the unproven bits. They don’t want to risk losing the season title or points lead to something like a two pound difference in rear tire pressure. In Danica’s case, she was teammates with Kevin Harvick, winner of over 40 races and the 2014 championship, Kurt Busch, winner of over 20 races and the 2004 championship, and Clint Bowyer, who has won over a dozen races and was a championship runner up. So when it was time for SHR to choose who the “guinea pig” was going to be, who did they choose? You guessed it: Danica. I do not believe this has anything to do with the fact that she’s a woman. This has everything to do with the team not wanting to accidentally sabotage 3 potential chances at the big year-end paycheck. So, yes, Danica’s car was at times “the 4th best” on her own team. But it was also a car that 30 other drivers would kill to be sitting in, as Stewart-Haas Racing is one of the 3 best NASCAR teams on the grid every single year.
Regarding Sponsorship: Racing is expensive. It takes a lot of money to do it competitively. In today’s business climate, retaining sponsorship funds only grows more daunting every day. So, if a driver can help with the team’s budget by bringing their own backing to the table, you better believe any current race team will at least sit down for a meeting. You see this same scenario all over the world of motorsport: A young, unproven driver with corporate sponsorship gets signed by a team that’s struggling for funds. Said driver takes the opportunity, grabs it by the throat, and impresses onlookers so much that eventually he/she won’t NEED to bring their own money. Teams will do whatever they can to PAY that driver to work with them. With the star power and brand recognition that Danica had earned driving in IndyCar, a NASCAR team would have been foolish to not at least give her a shot. The issue with Danica is that the results never came. Why? I honestly don’t know. Maybe the communication between her and her mechanics wasn’t cohesive. Maybe she was distracted by the stardom outside of racing and couldn’t commit as hard to improving her craft as her peers could. Your guess is as good as mine. The bottom line is, in any pro sport, if you don’t deliver, they will find someone that can. And this is what started happening towards the end of her career. So for her to call out her team after she retires and say they weren’t motivated to find her more funding is just unfair. Why would they be motivated to find her more funding? They have 3 drivers who win races and contend for championships on a consistent basis, while she has been running 25th every week for seven seasons. What is another 3-year sponsorship deal going to do?? Oh, and by the way, Aric Almirola replaced her in Stewart-Haas Racing’s “4th best car” and brought his own funding, just like she did. “Easy money” for the team, as she states in this interview. All he did in 2018 was win 1 race, finish in the top five 4 times, finish in the top ten 17 times and he was in the race to win the Monster Energy Cup until the second-to-last race of the season. Almirola’s 2018 was better than all 7 of Danica’s seasons combined…in the same car. If only the team had put more “effort” into it, right Danica?
Danica Patrick spent her entire career saying that she wanted people to view her as a race car driver, not a female race car driver. When the time came for her to explore her options for 2018 and beyond, it seems to me that potential suitors did exactly what she asked them to do: They looked at her race results in a direct comparison with her peers. And what they found just wasn’t good enough. The situation is just so perfectly ironic. While retirement was ultimately her choice it was, in a way, forced because she saw the writing on the wall. No one in the Monster Energy Cup was going to invest in a veteran driver who finishes 25th in each race. Do you know what happens to NASCAR stars who want to race past their prime? They race in Xfinity. Ask Dale Jr. Ask Elliot Sadler. Ask NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliot, who drove in Xfinity at Road America just last season at the ripe age of 62. It’s that simple. The reason I’m ranting on this for so long, the reason I’m bothered SO MUCH by her interview, is because Danica has nothing to gain by throwing everyone under the bus like she did. She enjoyed a decade-and-a-half career at the pinnacle of American racing, enjoying more fame than most of her competitors combined. She was a better race driver than I will ever be. She is a better race driver than you will ever be. She was a better race driver than 99% of the population on this planet. Her stardom reached far and wide, way beyond the catch-fences at race tracks and deep into mainstream media. Her achievements inspired an entire generation of young girls and kicked down doors to motorsports careers that would’ve otherwise remained locked for women. Her first name alone is instantly recognizable across the world. She was the most successful female driver in the combined histories of two major racing series, and would probably be the first to say that she wants another young girl to achieve far more than she did. Why can’t that be good enough? Why all the bitterness? Why sling this mud until her arms are tired? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
Danica, you had a great and historic run! Be proud of yourself! Be proud of the platform you created for women in motorsports. Be proud of all the lives you changed, and all the dreams you gave to women who without your example may never have thought they could dream of being a NASCAR or IndyCar driver. You are the example, you proved that it is possible. But be careful what you wish for, and most importantly, just like any other driver who slams the team for their race results after they leave: SHUT UP!