The Misunderstood Career of Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick completed her racing career yesterday at the Indy 500, which she had announced earlier would be her last race. Many before her have made the decision to retire and then changed their minds later – usually with dismal or disastrous results. In any case, she lost control of her race car and spun into the wall, ending her race and career. Probably.
Today there are comments arising in the great public forum that is Facebook criticizing her for her lack of success yesterday and going further to state she was never very good and yadayadaya. Of course, in equal equipment at almost any venue Ms. Patrick could whomp her critics by many seconds a lap, because she is a professional driver and has impressive skills far beyond the capability or even understanding of most.
Further, most of her critics choose to ignore that several male drivers had their race end in almost identical fashion – losing the rear end going into Turn 3 and rotating into the wall. Among them was a former winner of the race. This year’s cars, by regulation, have vastly decreased levels of down force. This has made the cars much more difficult to drive, especially at high speeds. The driver’s seem united in their delight with these harder to drive cars, and the racing is spectacular, which leads to bigger crowds and more enthusiasm, and more money.
And that is where the criticism of Ms. Patrick crashes into a misconception. Many people believe that professional race drivers are paid to win. This is categorically false. They are not paid to win, but to make money. Winning certainly helps a driver to make money, but it is not the only tool that can be used.
Car and motorcycle racing is now primarily an entertainment business, while still retaining the mantle of sport. Racing is expensive, and the vehicles used are now, almost entirely, sponsored by large companies – either commercial entities or manufacturers. A sponsored driver’s main task is to create a return on the considerable financial investment in marketing and sales success. A successful driver needs to be attractive and well spoken, and able to master emotions that might be crushing when a microphone is stuck in his or her face and the cameras are on, which is almost all of the time.
At the Formula 1 level, most of the drivers got to that height by bringing with them shipping crates full of money, either from their wealthy families or from companies that have chosen to back them in hopes of a return. There is a question now if Formula 1 drivers are really the best in the world, or merely very good drivers with almost bottomless pockets of financial support.
As for Danica, she walks away from the sport hale in mind and body, and joins a limited selection of women who have been successful in racing. I think Lynn St. James was a better driver, and you can dredge up several others. Angelle Sampey, Courtney and Brittany Force and Erica Enders Stevens in drag racing, which has led the way in allowing women to succeed in the sport. My friend Mary McGee in off-road and pavement car and motorcycle racing. Several women from the 1920’s to 1940s. And many others. Some won a lot, some won at times, but the definition of success has changed over the decades.
Danica’s skills can be debated, but success, oh yes. She made a lot of money for Go Daddy and her other sponsors, and also for herself. She took her talent, and recognized that her looks could be used to her advantage. She learned how to talk to media personnel, and how to create or avoid controversy. At the end of the day, she walks away with mind and body intact, and as the owner or several businesses. She will have many options for her future, all of them positive.
Good for her.
Copyright 2018 David Preston