It was suggested earlier this week that the world has a hate on for soon-to-be-NASCAR darling Danica Patrick. That could be true, but simple fatigue might be a bit more accurate way of describing how the racing world feels about the one-win wonder.
And that weariness only increases when the Danica apologists attempt to make the case that she’s actually a much better driver than her record indicates.
It’s time for her defenders to face reality: Danica Patrick has not set the world on fire in open wheel racing; actually, she’s been quite a disappointment.
In her car racing career, Patrick has one win in 191 starts. That’s a winning percentage of a tad more than one-half of one per cent of the time she gets in her car for a race. When just her IndyCar races are included, her record is slightly better with one win in 112 starts, or a 0.009 batting average. Ok, that’s better than erstwhile tennis celebrity Anna Kournikova, who never won anything, but you get the point.
Yet, Patrick’s defenders try to show that it’s not all that bad by cherry-picking stats that make her look better than she is. For example, comparing her NASCAR numbers to a random driver’s statistics, like 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, instead of her teammates is disingenuous at best. Any driver will tell you that a teammate is the best comparison due to the similar resources, equipment and personnel. Simply put, it is the yardstick that any reputable driver would use. According to that calculation, her NASCAR Nationwide teammates at JR Motorsport combined to average a top-five finish 26 per cent of the time over the two seasons she’s raced with the outfit, while Patrick’s standard is about 14 per cent.
In IndyCar she fares even worse. Keeping with top-five finishes, she outscored last minute replacement and somewhat untested driver Jeff Simmons in 2006 at Rahal Letterman and skill-challenged pay driver Hideki Mutoh at Andretti Green in 2008 and 2009. But apart from those two, she has mostly been outpaced by her teammates when it comes to top-five finishes.
To put things in complete perspective, her career numbers of one win and six podiums in seven IndyCar seasons compares rather poorly to Dario Franchitti’s performance during their one year as Andretti teammates in 2007, where he took four victories and 11 top-three finishes on his way to the title.
To be fair, she was the top Andretti driver in 2008 and 2009 when she finished sixth and fifth respectively overall. Last season, she slipped to 10th overall and lies 12th in points this year after 13 of 17 races.
As for the criticism of her sartorial choices, it’s true that unlike Patrick, few pay attention to the clothes five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson wears to a press conference.
But there’s a simple reason for this omission: It a guess, but it’s highly doubtful that Johnson — who is in tremendous physical shape — would consider showing up to a media day in skin-tight spandex pants and a black leather jacket. Instead, like most male drivers, he makes his clothes a non-issue by wearing team gear to press events.
And, let’s also be clear here: In a sport where bikini-clad eye candy is the norm, maybe a serious driver who hasn’t set the track ablaze with her speed would not try so hard to fit in with that scenery.
In addition, many would argue that Patrick’s posing in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition and batting her eyes in the shower in GoDaddy television commercials makes it more difficult for other women drivers to race with the boys on merit. To paraphrase former Law and Order Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette, it seems Patrick and her management team decided she’s a hot driver, not a talented racer who happens to be attractive.
In essence, that means she’s not breaking down barriers like Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, or Lyn St. James who was the first female Indy 500 rookie of the year. Instead, Patrick is putting up barriers for all the younger women following her through the ranks.
And it puts sophomore IndyCar driver Simona De Silvestro and any other female driver coming up in an uncomfortable position. Will teams expect De Silvestro to pose in a bikini to keep her ride? Or worse, does she need to strip to her skivvies and wear six-inch heels to be taken seriously as a woman who really wants to do everything it takes compete at the highest level? What if De Silvestro only wants to be judged by her performance on the track and not how she looks in a little black dress?
And in that respect, the Swiss driver is delivering. Despite running in a small, poorly funded single-car team. De Silvestro has beaten Patrick, who drives for the powerful four-car Andretti outfit, to the finish line in six of the 13 times they've raced against each other this year. There’s no doubt that an award for “top accomplishment by a female driver in IndyCar” would go to De Silvestro. But whose progress does television follow closely in every race? You guessed it: Patrick.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s at the root of why Patrick attracts so much negative commentary and criticism. Perhaps she simply personifies all that is wrong with motorsport today, something that some apologists gloss over.
Yes, there is no doubt that Patrick and her marketing team have mastered the auto racing business model, attracting a flush backer and ensuring she’s in the field for years to come, no matter how well or poorly she does.
But is Patrick’s marketing machine really something the industry and racing fans should celebrate?
After all, that kind of thinking paved the way for Paul Dana to secure an IndyCar seat in 2006 that he had no business getting. He died in a completely preventable crash in the warm-up at the season opener. Ironically, Dana was one of Patrick’s teammates at the Rahal Letterman team.
The “all about me” mentality bred by the current system finds her positioned as the driver who will stop the decline in NASCAR’s attendance and television numbers, even though it was apparent from the radio conversations with her pitcrew in her first few races that she failed to take the time to learn the rules before staring her stock car career.
Spending a recent NASCAR press conference talking about her love of expensive wine and fine art points to a slight disconnect between her and the typical NASCAR fan, who likely doesn't appreciate how a luscious Pomerol might dance on their palate, or gaze in wonder as the Biblical symbolism in Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire reveals itself.
The marketing heavy, skill secondary model Patrick encourages also keeps talented drivers — 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon comes into mind — on the sidelines when they could actually be out on track making races more interesting.
The bottom line is that fans get non-stop media coverage of someone whose average finish is a 13th place in 14 races this year, instead of watching a driver who likely would challenge for top results every weekend.
Seriously folks, is it any wonder racing fans and commentators roll their eyes when they see Patrick’s mug on their television screens as she talks about her hard-fought 19th place finish?