Patrick leaves her mark on racing world

Commentary

The Indianapolis 500 went green over the holiday weekend with Danica Patrick among the field for what she says is her last time competing behind the wheel.

Patrick qualified seventh and had high hopes of racing into retirement with a top-10 finish or better, maybe even a Cinderella trip to victory lane.

But it was not to be. Patrick crashed on the 68th lap, her career ending with a disappointing smack against the wall.

Patrick has said she’ll turn her attention to being a full-time entrepreneur: from wine to workout wear, she has number of irons in the fire, and an ongoing partnership with website hosting company, GoDaddy. If she’s not successful in at least some of her business ventures it will be a surprise.

But even as she works on building her business portfolio, she leaves a legacy that should inspire racing women of the future.

In recent years, Danica has faced her share of criticism while competing in NASCAR, in spite of a history-making career: first woman to win an IndyCar race; first woman to qualify on the pole of the Daytona 500, to name just a few of her accomplishments.

Still, often times, it was who-she-was-dating and what-she-was-wearing that made more news than her performance on the track. (Just look at the number of photos of Danica and NFL quarterback Aaron Rogers prior to Sunday’s race.)

While earning the respect of drivers like team owners Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., she was never able to break into that upper echelon and really compete for the Cup. (For the record, there are quite a few male drivers who have also spent their careers among the middle of the pack.)

But she brought attention to the sport for some fans who may not have otherwise been interested; and she earned her right to be there, even if she wasn’t often atop the leaderboard.

She took all of the attention, the good and the bad, usually in stride, creating for herself not just a racing career, but a brand that will live for a long time after she hangs up her helmet. (Her next milestone is becoming the first woman to host ESPN’s Espy Awards.)

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Danica Patrick story is that while she was fighting for her place in the male-dominated world of racing, she was not abandoning or even downplaying her femininity. And in spite of her bikini-clad commercials and unapologetic dating life, she proved that she could race among the best in the IndyCar world and the stock car world. That is success, even without a series championship.

Danica Patrick has a bright future ahead of her, even though there will undoubtedly be critics. But the next generation of women in NASCAR will likely have an easier path, and they have Patrick to thank for it.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.

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