SPORTS: How big was Patrick's win? Let the debate begin

April 28, 2008

Like most of the rest of the sporting world and to some extent beyond, I had awakened on that Sunday morning to the delightful news that, overnight in faraway Japan, Patrick had broken through to secure her first Indy Racing League victory in 50 tries.

She now is something more than a pretty face and, to some, a sexual object who also just happened to drive race cars.

She is a champion.

Now this isn't, as one gearhead suggested, along the lines of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier.

For one thing, the gender barrier in motorsports was broken long ago, by Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney in drag racing, and by Janet Guthrie in openwheel racing.

And Patrick has not had to endure anything remotely resembling the harassment Robinson encountered. If anything, Patrick-her path paved by the likes of Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher; backed by big-money sponsors (Argent and Motorola); and given a seat in first-class equipment (Rahal-Letterman, Andretti-Green)-had a relatively easy path to those checkered flags that flew above her head in Japan.

Emphasis on the word relatively, because I wouldn't begin to diminish Patrick's accomplishment.

This is a woman who, with her family's blessing and investment, set out with this goal in mind years ago and never took her eye off the prize. She wouldn't have made it to this point without incredible determination and talent. And on the latter score, I am not among those who believe that technology is so advanced just about anyone can drive an Indy car. It takes a special skill set, engineering intellect and, without question, courage, especially to consistently run at the front of the pack as Patrick has done.

So this is, as has been mentioned in multiple places and spaces already, a monumental achievement. ESPN's Mike Tirico called it the most significant triumph ever for a woman in sports and, while I'd like to challenge that, I'm hardpressed to top it. For those of my generation, Billie Jean King's tennis victory over Bobby Riggs was a watershed moment though, I'll admit, Riggs was hardly an Arthur Ashe or Jimmy Connors.

For those who say the Patrick success proves women can do anything, I guess I have to ask: Haven't we proven that already? We have a viable female candidate for president. We have a female secretary of state, a female speaker of the House. In Indianapolis alone, we have women (WellPoint's Angela Braly, IPL's Ann Murtlow, Langham's Cathy Langham) at the top of big business.

Yet, as the father of daughters and the husband of a smart, successful woman, I am always delighted to see reinforcement of the principle that we all are created equal even if, in some physical ways, we are not. In this case, Patrick has been able to capitalize on an opportunity to race and compete equally among her male peers.

While the social significance plays out, there remains the very real financial impact of Patrick's success. From the front page of The New York Times to the lead story on ESPN's "Sports Center," Patrick's story is the Saturn booster lifting the IndyCar Series into an orbit it hasn't achieved since the open-wheel circuits split.

That this occurs in the third race after unification; that it happens right before open-wheel racing's biggest month and biggest race; that it takes place alongside the emergence of young stars such as Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, and that it gives the series a high-profile presence and media draw NASCAR does not have is, in a word, serendipitous.

Even as Indy convenes without its last two champions, Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., there is every reason to believe the month of May, which has been showing signs of renewal the past few years, might reach a point on the buzz meter it hasn't seen in 20 years.

That said, a note of caution. We can never, ever lose sight of the dangers that lurk in open-wheel racing. That is, of course, part of its allure. But the risk for each driver is real.

And there's also this, to be sure: In time, someone may indeed begin to ask, fairly and appropriately, "So, when will Danica Patrick win her second race?"

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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