Race Weekend Central

What’s The Real Story: A New Perspective On Danica And More, From The Drag Strip

While the NASCAR Cup and Truck Series were in Kansas last weekend, a show of a whole different kind was rolling into Charlotte. Just across Bruton Smith Boulevard from Charlotte Motor Speedway is zMAX Dragway, and the NHRA show was in town for Four-Wide Nationals.

It may have been just across the street, but it might as well have been a whole other world.

It was a lot to take in. There were new rules to learn, new interviews to seek, a whole new level of loud. A lot of lessons were packed into one weekend, and I came away richer in knowledge and understanding of a new form of racing. But there were also lessons about NASCAR to be learned, more from the contrast of the two sports than anything else.

Believe it or not, the first thing that came to my mind after spending some time in the pits was … how unfair are we being to Danica Patrick? By “we,” in this case, I’m talking mostly the media, but also of some fans … and the answer really gave me pause. Because really, it isn’t a very nice conclusion at all.

Danica Patrick may be in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons in her young career.

Are we piling on the pressure for Patrick to succeed simply because she’s a woman? Well, yes … and there’s also the pervading sense that she has had a lot of opportunities handed to her because of her gender, and well, to be blunt, she has. But the pressure heaped on her by the media is just ridiculous. No driver could possibly live up to the hype that surrounds Patrick. And the inescapable conclusion is that the hype is due to one thing, and one thing only: her gender.

Everywhere, we’re inundated with trivia: she’s the first female driver to race this track, first to qualify in such-and-such a spot, first to do this “thing.” It’s news that she’s dating a fellow driver because that hasn’t happened very often. Patrick is under the microscope practically 24/7 because she’s a girl. Not only that, but the media are putting the pressure on her for all those “first female” and “best by a female” records because we want a feel-good story.

People can say it’s because she’s a talented racer, but be honest: there are plenty of drivers who match her talent. You can say it’s because she’s an open-wheel star turned NASCAR driver, but that’s not it either, if we’re honest. After all, Sam Hornish, Jr., Dario Franchitti, and Juan Pablo Montoya were all much more accomplished open-wheel racers when they made the move, and they didn’t get this kind of attention.

Not only is Patrick being buried, under undue pressure there’s also a group of fans who actively dislike her because of the attention she receives. And you can’t really blame them; it’s a bitter pill to swallow when a driver is featured extensively in every corner of the media while many drivers of equal caliber barely get a mention. It’s not fair. But it’s also not fair to Patrick. If the media need her to succeed so badly just to get a positive story out of it, something’s wrong somewhere.

She didn’t ask for the attention. She’d probably prefer to learn the ins and outs of Cup racing somewhere other than under the microscope. She’s a rookie, and she hasn’t even raced a lot of these tracks in a Cup car yet. She should be out there logging laps, learning lines, practicing strategy. But she’s not allowed to simply do that, because she’s supposed to set records.

Meanwhile, take a walk through the pits at an NHRA event, and women are a part of every series. They’re there, and have been for years. Shirley Muldowney was winning races and titles in the NHRA’s Top Fuel division — its top class — in the 1970s. All in all, 51 women have driven in NHRA events over the years, and 13 of them have won. Women work on the race teams. They’re just “a part of the scene” in the pits. They aren’t followed by cameras every step they take; not even the most well-known female drag racers, Courtney and Brittany Force, get that kind of constant media attention. And I definitely got the impression that while they do get the extra scrutiny that any racing series’ biggest stars enjoy (or not), it isn’t simply because they’re women. If anything, it’s because their last name is Force, and their father is a 15-time NHRA champion. The better comparison here might be to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., not to Patrick.

I asked Brittany Force, who is a rookie in the Top Fuel division, if she felt extra pressure to perform because she’s a woman.

“I don’t see it like that; I’m (just) out there,” Force said. “The one thing about this sport is, we’re all out here because we have this passion for driving, for drag racing. It’s something we all love. Everybody has been so great out here. My whole year of testing, I had Tony Schumacher and Spencer Massey, other Top Fuel drivers just come over and give me pointers and tips and offer that if I ever had any questions, I could always come ask them. Everybody has been really supportive, and I think that’s the great thing about the sport.”

Seeing the way the women in NHRA racing are treated (pretty much like anyone else; they’re not referred to as “female drivers,” but simply as “drivers”) made me wonder if the undue media pressure is keeping Patrick from performing to her full potential — she’s pulled in so many different directions on a race weekend that it has to take its toll. Maybe it’s time to just let her be another driver.

On a similar vein, the NHRA, from drivers to crews to fans, is a diverse group. The diversity among fans is noticeable compared to the NASCAR crowd. Among the drivers and crews, it’s similar to the way women are viewed … all competitors are simply racers. The diversity didn’t come from a carefully tailored and controlled program such as NASCAR has instituted. It just is. And perhaps that’s why it flourishes.

Race day atmosphere is pretty special in any form of racing. It’s almost like a carnival, with bright-colored booths vying for attention as they hawk their wares. Sponsors have interactive exhibits, where fans can spin a giant wheel or guess the number of hubcaps in a bin to win prizes. The smell of fried food competes with the smell of racing fuel to be the pervading scent. Everyone is having a good time.

The difference was that in the NHRA pits, the drivers are a part of it all. They spend time meeting and talking to fans and they look like they’re having almost as much fun as the fans are. They rarely sign a hurried autograph and walk away; many stopped to pose for pictures, even inviting the fans to come stand by their cars for a photo. Top Fuel champion Antron Brown not only went the extra mile, but he remembered several longtime fans from previous meetings and greeted them like old friends. All the while, he was having fun.

While it would be impossible to grant every fan at a NASCAR race that kind of access, it would be nice to see more drivers signing at their haulers — you used to see it a lot more in the not-too-distant past. And why not have fun with it while they’re there? Some drivers genuinely do; others, far too many look like they’d rather be boiled in oil.

Another thing that intrigued me was that yes, there are bigger teams with more money, but the cars are so on the edge there’s no guarantee that the big money will win. At 8,000 horsepower, a rich team’s engine can break as easily as a poor one’s. And you don’t hear fans grousing that this team is favored or this one only wins because they have the cash, or those guys cheat all the time. That kind of sniping isn’t good for racing.

Someone said to me that NHRA racing today is, in a lot of ways, the way NASCAR was 30 years ago. If that’s true, then how did NASCAR, the media, and even the fans go astray … and how does the NHRA keep from doing it? Maybe it’s because everyone, from media to fans, is looking for the next big story, the next bandwagon to jump on, the newest buzz words. For NHRA fans, the story is simple — it’s the race weekend itself, the drivers, and the roar of the cars on the racetrack. They let the racing be the story. And maybe that’s why, in its simplicity, it’s told so very well.

Perhaps it’s time for everyone to take a long, hard look at the way we view a NASCAR event and the things that surround it. Maybe it’s time to step back, stop pressuring drivers to be something they’re not, to stop looking for a story that isn’t there, to let the racing do the talking. Because while NASCAR and NHRA drag racing are two very different sports, they have one thing in common: the fans are there because they love racing. So why not just enjoy the show?

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