Monday, April 21, 2008

Let the Danica post-mortem begin

I like to think of myself as a social liberal, generally nodding and agreeing with much of what I read on sites like Salon.com and hear on NPR. Social liberals are also generally required to be sypathetic to the principles of feminism, so sign me up there too.

However, a brief article in Salon's "Broadsheet", a column dedicated to women's issues, sparked a furious debate that to me seemed to trivialize Danica Patrick's historic win in the Indycar series on Saturday. Luckily my partner K was on hand to bring the discussion back on topic and she made some well-considered and salient points. Further evidence that I'm rather a lucky guy to have a partner who knows the name of one of the engineers on Citroen's World Rally team...

Anyway, there's a couple of things going on here:

  • There will be some who will call the win a fluke. It is true she did not have the pace all day and was never able to get any closer to the front that fifth. However motorsport is not always about who's the fastest and I'm not sure even Danica would claim to have more natural talent than someone like Scott Dixon or Helio Castroneves. Sometimes winning takes balls and brains, which is what got the job done in this case. Her team came up with a great strategy and Danica executed it perfectly. In this regard she outdrove Castroneves, who was on the same strategy but overdrove early in his stint. When he started to second-guess his fuel reserves, Danica had the guts to risk going for the win. Good job Mrs. Hospenthal.
  • It is probably true that had she been a guy, she would have been dropped by AGR after 2007 and would never have been in a position to fight for victory in this race. Her performances in the IRL have been rather inconsistent, with a second, a third and two fourths in the first three years of her IRL career. Once again though, there is a flip-side to this, and it's the acceptance that a driver's value to a team goes beyond pure results. Danica is PR GOLD, and the attention she brings makes AGR a sponsorship magnet compared with other IRL teams. AGR have four drivers - they don't need all of them to be championship-winners. Having a diverse line-up in which each driver has their own specialties and positive attributes is smart team management.
  • Which brings me to point three. What has Danica done for women in motorsport? I just noted how her gender has probably kept her in the team when a guy might have been dropped. Is this good or bad? Is it better for a woman to be shown favoritism in this regard, or for her to never even break through to such a high level of motorsport? I think K put it perfectly when she alluded to how drivers will always leverage whatever they can to achieve success, her example being Tony Stewart's association with Subway. It may very well be considered "tacky" for Danica to show off her admittedly rather pleasing body in men's magazines, but I've seen male drivers do other equally tacky PR. I can see how feminists might be upset with her doing such things, but to be honest I think her racing career would be no different had she not - she's a media- and fan-friendly figure who attracts attention because of her gender, regardless of whether she's in a bikini or a racesuit. I don't believe women have to strip off to get ahead in racing, but an insistence on equal treatment as the guys get will not necessarily be the answer either. People want newsworthy stories and in Danica's case it's her gender that's the tagline. It's no different to Graham Rahal or Marco Andretti, who court similar (albeit less widespread) coverage because of their ages and family backgrounds. And dare we even mention the colour of Lewis Hamilton's skin?
It was a bizarre win, but a win nonetheless. It was a moment in history. It was something that women can be proud of, but I think that motorsport has even more reason to be proud. After all, there was never any doubt that a woman could do this, but there was doubt as to whether motorsport would ever let them. That doubt is now gone. Hooray for that.

4 comments:

Jimmy said...

I'm sure she won fair and square, and even though it's a Mickey Mouse series these days she beat all the blokes on the day.

But she's no Michelle Mouton.

Clive said...

Can't say that I'm a social liberal (whatever that is) but I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed. The only question that remains is where on earth did Danica get balls and whose are they?

Mary-Ann said...

Good article, I'm certainly a social liberal and I agree with you. I read the Broadsheet post but usually I switch off when someone refers to the sport as "racing car driving" like she did...

While I'm here though, why is it that people like to refer to successful women as Mrs Husbandsname? (assuming they don't use it anyway)

patrick said...

I'm broadly socially liberal as well, and rather disappointed by the way the word feminism has been misappopriated by extremist misandrists, but anyway...

The nature of oval racing is such that the fastest guy (or girl) doesn't always win. Danica Patrick was not the quickest person on the track on Sunday, but then there have been plenty of race wins in IRL for people who called the strategy right, got a bit of luck with the caution periods and kept their nose out of trouble. To pick on Danica's victory as being somehow less worthy seems unfair. She got the job done.

As for the photos of her in men's magazines - if this kind of thing helped her get publicity, and by extension, the drive, so be it. You use whatever you've got to advance your career in racing. I dare say that if it would get them an AGR or Penske drive, there's a lot of male racing drivers who would do the same... People of lesser talent have got good drives for still more dubious reasons. Look at some of the rent-a-drivers that Brabham used to run alongside Piquet in F1.