Amid a terribly tragic day, her retirement from the IndyCar circuit seemed a minor occurrence, but her effect on the image of women in racing has been quite large.
On the one hand, I have always been incredibly psyched about the fact that she was out there making appreciably large waves in a sport that has always been dominated by men.
Then I would flip a page in a magazine or pass a billboard and there she was, unzipping some piece of clothing on a leather sofa sleeper, or cavorting atop her car in a swimsuit, and this little voice in my head would say, “Yeah. Not so much.”
When I voiced my concerns about IndyCar’s, NASCAR’s, and Ms. Patrick’s own need to continually assert her femininity in strangely overt ways, my friends would often shrug and tell me that it was no big deal. As Ms. Patrick prepares to embark on a new phase in her racing career, I am realizing that I am not sure that I have ever agreed with them.
Patrick’s background and rise in the racing community is well known at this point. She started racing go-karts in Wisconsin when she was 10, and went on to win multiple championships. She moved to England in her late teens, and began racing in the British National Series, ultimately achieving the highest finish by a female racer ever (2nd Place) in the Formula Ford Festival.
She began racing in the US again in 2002, at the age of 20, and finished in the top three in multiple races on the Toyota Atlantic Championship circuit. In 2005, she began racing in the IRL IndyCar Series, and became the fourth woman to race in the Indy 500. Her fourth place finish is the highest finish by a female driver at the Indy 500, and she was the first female to ever lead the race. She went on to achieve pole position in multiple races throughout 2005, and was ultimately named Rookie of the Year for both the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series.
The next few years would see her finishing in the top three at multiple races, including a 2nd place finish at Belle Isle in 2007, and a first place finish at Twin Rig Motegi at Indy Japan 500. Her win in Japan made her the first woman to win an IndyCar race ever, and she finished in 6th place for the IndyCar season in 2008, which was the highest ranking by an American racer that year. The latter was a feat she repeated again in 2009, finishing fifth in the world.
2010 saw her setting the IndyCar record for the number of consecutive races finished running with 33. She also began racing in the NASCAR Series in 2010, and achieved a fourth place finish in the Sam’s Town 300.
It would seem from her racing history, that she has is definitely a ‘contender’, as it were. She has a huge fan base, and has brought new people and increased viewership to the sport. The IndyCar marketing team is already worried about what her departure will do to their visibility and advertising dollars. Which leads back to the question of why so many of her public images involve bikinis, skintight cat-suits, suggestive poses, and blowing hair.
She commented in a recent interview that she prefers signing autographs for children, because she knows that they are actually going to keep them, instead of selling them on Ebay, but she has in some ways created her own monster. All race car drivers serve as product spokespeople, but only Ms. Patrick does it half-dressed. Is it a choice made by the marketers?
Is it Ms. Patrick thumbing her noise at her own image? Is it a blatant double standard that is so prevalent that we do not even blink about it anymore? Whatever it is, it subtly mitigates what she has accomplished, and as she heads into a NASCAR-focused career, she has a prime opportunity to construct a public image that is about her sports prowess, and less about that fact that she is pretty… and drives a car really well, too. It is awesome that she has made a name for herself in a male-dominated field. It is awesome that she is an attractive woman who does not mind celebrating that fact.
It would just be a bit more awesome if she could own all of that with all her clothes on.
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