On April 20, 2008, Danica Patrick rewrote history, becoming the first female driver to win a major auto race. She claimed the checkered flag in the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi, satisfying the critics for at least a few months.
Now, facing yet another opportunity to prove she belongs, Danica Patrick will attempt to win the most recognized event in all of racing. Starting at the fifth position, she has as good a chance as any of her competitors to taste the milk in the winner’s circle.
All throughout her brief career, Danica has faced doubts about her ability to clinch the lead in races and finish them. Garnering comparisons to the likes of Anna Kournikova, Patrick has been attacked as being willing to promote herself and gain media stardom before proving herself in races.
However, it must be noted that her IRL (IndyCar Series) career only began in 2005, when she signed a contract with former sponsor Rahal Letterman Racing. In this rookie year, Patrick qualified fourth for the Indianapolis 500, became the first woman to lead a lap in that race and finished fourth, the highest finish for a female driver.
Every year in her three-year stint she has bested her previous achievements in the IndyCar Series Championship point standings, the most recent being seventh in 2007. In 2005, she was named rookie of the year for the IRL.
All of this is to suggest that Danica Patrick has been more successful in her first three seasons than most "big league" athletes. Few athletes can dream to have as much of an impact on their sport as Patrick has.
Unfortunately, the media pushes the bandwagon of recent success more than anyone. As soon as Danica finished fourth in her first Indy 500, she could be seen in SportsCenter commercials, on the front pages of national newspapers and became the media darling of the IRL.
Instantly, Danica was expected to win the pole position in every race she entered, clinch the checkered flag in every event she shifted gears and become the most dominant driver in the history of racing. These expectations still exist in the minds of Americans.
We all want Danica to excel in her races. The idea of a single woman outlasting, outcompeting and besting a field of male drivers is exciting. It hearkens back to the days of Joan of Arc, to the days of women’s suffrage, to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. A win for Danica is a win for equality in the workplace, objective journalism, and global understanding.
Unfortunately, while these hopes are virtuous in and of themselves, they place a burden upon the shoulders of a woman with just three (and change) years experience in the IRL. They place a burden upon the shoulders of a woman who is determined not to win the race because she is a woman, but because she wants more than any of her competitors to prove she belongs on the track. They place a burden upon the shoulders of a woman who simply loves to strap on a helmet and drive a machine to the brink.
As Danica straps herself into the number 7 Dallara Honda car of Andretti Green Racing for today’s Indianapolis 500, she does so with expectations placed upon her. She didn’t ask for millions of Americans to stand behind her, willing her on to "certain" victory.
The only thing Danica will be pondering is the expectation she has placed upon herself. It is the same expectation everyone else has for her, but with a single difference. When you sit behind an automobile capable of traveling in excess of 250 miles-per-hour, the only voice that matters in the one encased in a cocoon of engineering marvel.
For Danica Patrick, that voice is saying, “Win.”