Danica Sue Patrick became the first woman in history to claim pole position for the legendary Daytona 500 race in what has always been a male-dominated territory and an unashamedly chauvinistic sport. But it all changed on Sunday when the lady from Beloit, Wisconsin, trumped her male rivals in qualifying for a great American classic motor race.
Nascar racing is without doubt the most popular form of motor sport in the US and arguably the second most popular behind F1 globally. It’s popularity these days transcends the southern states of the US where is has its roots.
Stock car racing – which evolved into the current Nascar series – originated iduring the Prohibition era, when drivers ran bootleg and needed to distribute their illicit products, typically using small, fast vehicles to evade the police. No ladies were ever in those driving seats.
Fast forward almost a century and the sport has evolved into one of the great arena spectacles watched live on TV by an estimated 20 million people. Around 170,000 die-hard fans will land up at 1801 West International Speedway Boulevard in Daytona Beach, Florida, on February 24 and they may well witness the first ever woman winner.
As Monaco is the crown jewel of F1, the Daytona 500 is the big deal in Nascar. Patrick could not have accomplished her feat in a better showpiece. In the US, Daytona ranks right up there with the Superbowl.
On the day, she took on the best of the oval racing ‘big boys’, such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and the gang of drivers who have dominated the race. At the wheel of a Number 10 bright green Stewart-Haas Racing team Chevrolet, Patrick kept her cool under extreme pressure as she powered around the the 4-kilometre Speedway at 316 kph. Her lap speed was the fastest effort at Daytona since 1990, and with it she also became the first rookie driver to win the Daytona 500 pole since 2002.
The triumph marked another in a growing list of firsts for Patrick, who became the first woman to lead laps in the fabled Indianapolis 500. Her 2009 third place finish in the Indy 500, one of the world’s biggest races, is still the high mark for a woman. Furthermore she is the only woman to win a major single-seater race, taking home the big trophy when she triumphed after the IndyCar race at Motegi in 2008.
Since then she has moved to Nascar where, with hard graft and commitment, she moved through a highly competitive feeder series to break into the top-tier Sprint Cup. She is in the throes of her first full season with the Haas-Stewart Racing organisation.
Patrick said after her win: “I just understand that if you put the hard work before you go out there, that you can have a little bit of peace of mind knowing you’ve done everything you can and just let it happen.”
She attributed her success in a man’s world to “First and foremost, I grew up with good values and good goals. I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl, and that was instilled in me very young, from the beginning.
“For those reasons I’ve been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things. I really just hope I don’t stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make.”
For the uninformed, Patrick’s achievement is akin to a female runner competing against men in the 100-meter sprint and winning, or a woman donning on a Manchester United first team kit and scoring a hat-trick in the Premier League, or a lady dunking the winning basket in the NBA men’s final.
The Danica Patrick story will be a movie one day.
“That’s a huge accomplishment,” team owner and fellow driver Tony Stewart declared. “It’s not like it’s been 15 or 20 years she’s been trying to do this. It’s her second trip to Daytona here in a Cup car. She’s made history in the sport.
“That’s stuff that we’re proud of being a part of with her. It’s something she should have a huge amount of pride in.”
Four-time Nascar champion Jeff Gordon, who will share the front row with Patrick for next Sunday’s race, joked afterwards saying that he was at least the fastest man.
Like any motorsport fan I have my favourite Nascar boys. but I know who I will be cheering for on Sunday - Go girl!