Danica Patrick, the race car driver, ubiquitous product endorser, and Sports Illustrated bikini model, has always been at risk of having her hype overshadow her talent. But last Sunday, in her first full season as a driver in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, she became the first woman driver to qualify to lead any Sprint Cup race. She will start the Daytona 500 this weekend. Patrick finally justified the hype, at 196.343 miles per hour.
Such progress for women in a traditionally male-dominated sport is historic, because there has still never been a woman winner of any NASCAR race, and there are no other female drivers on the sport’s top circuit. Before Patrick’s recent success, the best starting position for any woman had been achieved by Janet Guthrie, with two 9th-place starts in 1977 in less prestigious races than the Daytona 500.
After her recent qualifiying run, Patrick noted that she “was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl.” But expectations are high in an industry that has faced decreasing television coverage and public participation. Patrick, who loves the camera as much as it loves her, will have an opportunity to be judged by her skills, not her media saturation. “We [female drivers] have a lot more history to make. We are excited to do it.” And, it seems, given the focus on Patrick’s success, the American public is excited, too.