Wiedmer: Danica win could change NASCAR forever

Wiedmer: Danica win could change NASCAR forever

February 24th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Danica Patrick, left, displays the flag with Tony Stewart after winning the pole Sunday during qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. Patrick became the first woman to secure the top spot for any Sprint Cup race.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Welcome to the Daytonica 500, where the fastest woman on the planet (at least for this week), Danica Patrick, will attempt to leave 42 men in her dust today in the Great American Race.

Now we know what Helen Reddy had in mind when she sang 41 years ago, "I am woman, hear me roar with horsepower too loud to ignore."

Or something like that.

We may also be on the verge of witnessing the death blow to the last bastion of Good Ol' Boy testosterone, the long-used phrase "Rubbin'" headed for a political correctness bath.

"She's up against all the guys, and I think they're all jealous of her," 61-year-old Wilma Smith of Ider, Ala., said Friday when asked about Patrick becoming the first woman to win the pole in a Sprint Cup Series race.

Added fellow NASCAR fanatic Jeff Tingle: "This is history being made. If she wins, that's all anybody will talk about for a long, long time."

It could be argued that NASCAR wouldn't mind it that way, that other than a victory by Junior Earnhardt -- Tingle's favorite driver -- nothing could boost the stagnant interest in the sport more than a Patrick victory lap.

Television viewers were down 10 percent last year from 2011, which had been NASCAR's first ratings increase since 2005.

Of worse long-term news to the sport was a 25-percent drop in the 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

At least where young women are concerned, Chattanooga Girls Inc. spokesman Bea Lurie believes.

"We always want our girls to see successful examples of women who have overcome obstacles," she said. "This might encourage a high school student to pursue a dream she wouldn't have had the courage to do otherwise. When I saw what Danica had done in the paper, I said, 'Yes!'"

A single example of Patrick's burgeoning power among females: NASCAR super heavyweights Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards all took their daughters to the Daytona International Speedway to meet her this past week.

Said Patrick to the media: "Carl was saying it's good that she sees me in real life and in person, because 'to her, you are like some mythical figure that doesn't exist.' That's three pretty big drivers who have little girls that wanted to meet me."

But it's all those people who'll want to watch that could change the sport for years to come.

"I'll definitely watch," said Tingle's wife Shirley, a retired schoolteacher in the Dade County system. "Whenever Jeff used to watch, I'd work on lesson plans or take a nap. But this is exciting."

ESPN racing commentator Brad Daugherty went further during the network's Saturday afternoon show before the Nationwide race.

"It's so important for her to be successful because of what she represents," said the former University of North Carolina and NBA hoops great. "Like the first black in a sport, it's so important for those who follow."

Perhaps hoping to diffuse the possible historic importance of her achievement, Patrick told ESPN, "It will probably be 20 years before I know what all this means."

But earlier in the week, she said of her hopeful long-term, high-minded impact: "Do not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Ignore that and let it be about what your potential is."

And if she could win today, or sometime in the near future, she could theoretically become the Billie Jean King of her sport, a woman capable of permanently altering the opinion of male chauvinist pigs everywhere regarding the skill sets of women driving a tin can traveling 190 mph.

It might even force her sponsor, GoDaddy.com, to change its name to GoMommy.com, though Patrick has no children.

Yet like every other individual sport, it also will come down to how much Patrick can either steal the hearts of current NASCAR fanatics currently wedded to other drivers or steer a whole new demographic group to the sport.

To illustrate the possible difficulty in that, when Smith was asked if she'd be rooting for Patrick, she instantly announced, "I would, but Jeff Gordon's my favorite. Really, I just want anybody but Jimmie Johnson. I'm tired of seeing him win."