A general rule about any story regarding Danica Patrick: Never, under any circumstances, read the comments. They will only depress you.
The very idea that people harbor vile thoughts is one thing. That they hide behind anonymity to spew vile thoughts for others to read is another thing altogether. And every single piece of internet news about Patrick is met by foul, often obscene responses. If there is one recurring theme surrounding her racing career, it is that some people hated it to the point that they lost their anonymous internet minds.
Hopefully, it won’t end that way. Patrick’s announcement Friday that she plans to end her career was underscored by the news that she plans to end it at the Indianapolis 500 in May.
Here’s an idea that won't go over well with internet trolls: Let’s make it a pleasant farewell. Let's acknowledge what she accomplished, out loud and in person. We witnessed a bit of history. Certainly not the entire history of women in racing, but a significant portion of it.
What the trolls don’t understand about Patrick is that her story isn’t all that new. True, she’s a pioneer in the form of racing they follow to the exclusion of other forms, but women have been driving race cars professionally for nearly a century. And they’ve done it successfully.
To wit: Five days before Patrick’s announcement, Brittany Force claimed the NHRA Top Fuel championship, the first by a woman in 35 years, when Shirley Muldowney celebrated her third Top Fuel championship. Then, it was the first time anyone – man or woman – had won three championships in drag racing’s fastest class.
The story of women in racing goes back even further. In 1929, French model and actress Hellé Nice won an all-female race, setting a land-speed record for women in the process. Her story was sensational and controversial. She garnered sponsorship deals, had an overwhelming media presence, was hated by her competitors and fans, and used fame to reach her Grand Prix goal. She also was damned good at driving fast cars.
Pat Moss, Stirling Moss’ sister, found success in the 1950s rally scene. In 1958, she finished fourth in the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally, an insanely difficult race made more difficult by 1950s equipment.
In 1961, Denise McCluggage won the GT class at the 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1977, Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. In 1992, Lyn St. James finished 11th at Indy and was named rookie of the year.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Michele Mouton won four World Rally Championship races. She also won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, a race most drivers are frightened to watch, let alone attempt.
In 2000, Sarah Fisher became the first woman to win a pole position and finish on the podium in an Indy car race. In 2005, Patrick became the first woman to lead the Indy 500. In 2008, she won at Twin Ring Motegi, the first woman to win an Indy car race. In 2013, she became the first woman to win the pole position for the Daytona 500.
Had the internet existed in 1929, the hateful response to Hellé Nice would’ve broken it. The same complaints about her can be found nearly nine decades later in the complaints about Patrick. Nice used her fame to further her career. She called out male competitors when they made mistakes. She used her gender and appearance to secure sponsorships. If race cars had radios in 1929, Hellé Nice surely would’ve sworn while talking on them.
Danica Patrick doesn’t consider herself a pioneer, certainly not in the sense that other people – primarily her detractors – think she is. She considers herself simply a racer, and that attitude makes everything she does a point of contention for her critics. When Male Driver X angrily confronts Male Driver Y after a race, fans side with one or the other based on the circumstance of the complaint. But if Danica Patrick confronts Any Male Driver, the judgmental commence judging.
When Muldowney retired in 2003, competitor Gary Scelzi told Drag Racing Online: “She's paved the way for every woman and straightened out every man along the way. … I like that she speaks her mind and she's never been afraid to do it, whether it helped her or hindered her, but you always knew where you stood with her.”
Someday, a woman will win consistently in motorsports. She’ll win multiple championships. She’ll drive for the best teams, race the best cars and beat the best competition. Hopefully when that day comes, gender won’t define her. She’ll simply be a racer.
Until then, celebrate what you've witnessed. And don’t read the comments.