Racy Racers: Skill, Sex Appeal and Speed
by Chris Sheridan
One name, three syllables, and an endless debate concerning style over substance.
Is Danica Patrick an attractive girl? Yes, by most standards, whatever that means. Is she a good racing driver? Yes, by most standards, whatever that means. Clearly, Danica has worked her way up the ladder through the ranks and earned herself a berth in the top level of North American motorsports. But along the way, did she win the Formula Atlantic championship? Or win a race in the feeder series? No and no, but she was always a front-runner with podium finishes and that’s good enough to advance.
Another female IndyCar driver, Simona de Silvestro, didn’t win an Atlantic championship either, but she did win four races and garnered the same number of poles. Is she an attractive girl? Yes, but perhaps not so much by current “media-genic” standards. Simona is in no danger of landing an FHM magazine spread (nor should she do it if asked, because she’s above that in my opinion), but it is very likely she could surpass Danica’s driving record in IndyCar. Most agree that she is unquestionably a good race driver.
But part of being a “good driver,” especially the higher up the ranks you go, depends largely upon the driver’s ability to provide or attract the sponsorship money and media visibility it takes to be able to race in the first place. Simple as that – no bucks, no Buck Rogers. Race cars are, in the minds of sponsors, billboards on wheels, and the drivers’ fire suits are merely sandwich boards for the products they pitch.
Any advertising or PR person knows that one of the most effective ways to attract money is through the emotions – the instant recognition of a celebrity endorsement, the trust we put into a reputable expert, and the most powerful and mysterious of all forces, sex appeal. Remember, it wasn’t her mind or the chariot driving skills of Helen (of Troy) that launched a thousand ships; it was her face.
But nowadays, having just a pretty face isn’t enough. You have to be media-genic in that you have to have a good speaking voice and an entertaining on-camera personality to satisfy the needs of advertisers. Like it or not, all these off-track skills are needed for today’s racing driver to even have the opportunity to participate.
SEXY LAYOUTS AND SELLING OUT
Clearly, Danica Patrick has gone well above and beyond the necessary “selling herself” to raise millions in sponsorship for her racing career and on to gratuitous cheesecake for her own personal financial advancement. But I see no problem with that per se; that’s her choice. Yes, sexiness does pay, and sex sells, but only to a point. Provocative Danica commercials have not caused me to change from Prestone to Peak antifreeze and I was a GoDaddy customer long before she was a GoDaddy girl. So there.
And what of her spread-eagle magazine layouts? The only thing that has done for me is make me want to rip off those shiny black panties, assume the pole position, bend her over that ’57 Chevy and drive her into victory lane so hard she’ll need a HANS device (my version of safe sex). And there’s nothing wrong with that either – that’s what sexy picture layouts are supposed to do – so they sell more magazines! But that has nothing to do with racing, and I do digress…
The problem with Danica’s “sell-out” is that it has probably done just as much damage as it has good for her reputation – and those of current and future female drivers. Has she raised (or, rather, lowered) the bar too much for female racers? Do girls now have to do bikini spreads in order to get a ride? I hope not.
TROPHY WIVES AND GRID GIRLS
Make no mistake, cheesecake does have it’s place in auto racing – and for good reason. There is a term used frequently to describe an overtly sexy woman that a man marries: Trophy Wife. It came from racing, from the glamour girl who presents the race winner with a trophy, a wreath and a kiss on the cheek. And for this, the driver risked his life? Oh hell, yes…a thousand times over.
A winning driver doesn’t get to keep the trophy girl anyway. The importance is in what she symbolizes: Beauty, innocence, fragility and comfort. And, these symbols are in direct contrast to the brute force, danger, guts and violence that is motor racing. This tradition has a long, long history, mostly in the field of human warfare. Naval ships, dating back to antiquity, sported a beautiful figurehead on the bow and a girl’s name on the stern. Soldiers go into combat with a picture of “the girl back home” to remind them of what they are fighting for. And in WWII, pilots had racy pin-up girl “nose art” painted on their P-51’s and B-17’s which they flew to their fate above the clouds. For many of these brave young men, she was the last girl they would ever see.
So I say, let’s keep the trophy girl, even in it’s current permutation (IZOD’s Cameron never actually presents the trophies to the drivers). And, in IndyCar, let’s have even more grid girls – F1 and Superbike style – one for each starting position and drawn from local girls at each venue. We could make it (sort of) classy by offering scholarships to co-eds, or having them submit a written essay along with a photo to be selected, or at least utilize them for additional benefit. If sex sells, why not use it to raise money for charity? Okay, maybe that’s not a great idea.
Anyway, let’s get over it, get on with it and turn up the Linda Vaughn factor a bit. It’s great entertainment that goes right along with all the rest that racing has to offer at the track – motorcycle jumps, crazy stunts, military color guards, fly-overs, two-seater rides, balloons, fireworks, etc. Personally, I’d rather see the cheesecake emphasis taken off the female drivers and let the trophy babe and grid girls do the heavy lifting in that department – besides, they’re more qualified for it anyway.
Think again. Consider this year’s (2011) Indy 500 lineup. Do you have to wonder why two male drivers, both on the same team, equally matched with one 500 victory each (going into the 2011 race), received very different media coverage? I’m talking about Panther’s Buddy Rice and Dan Wheldon. One looks like Justin Beiber and the other more resembles Gene Hackman. Both are excellent drivers, but which one do you want peddling your designer jeans?
So, this is not just a “female driver” issue. I remember back in the CART days of the 1980’s, Kevin Cogan and Danny Sullivan appearing in various print advertisements for expensive sunglasses and Hugo Boss cologne, but no memory of Bobby Rahal or Al Unser Jr. doing the same. They did motor oil and beer commercials. Oh, and Sullivan was on the cover of Playgirl magazine – before his 1985 Indy 500 win. I see no double standard here…it works for the guys as it does for the girls, but I think many of us have forgotten that in this post-Danica era of motorsports.
MISSING – AND MAKING – THE POINT
If there ever was a point to all this, I’ll make it now. The point is, for perhaps the first time ever, women athletes are now competing regularly at the top level in a major sport alongside men. Female jockeys also fit this bill. Some college-level women have competed equally and there was the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match, but that was more of a side-show than actual tournament competition.
How awesome is this? There is no “girls racing league” or Title IX in motorsports. If you’re a girl and you can drive (and get the sponsorship to be able to) – then you can race, compete and, yes, win. THAT is the point here. Girls make good racing drivers, in fact, girls are good drivers. Yes, there’s a reason why young girls pay less for car insurance than boys of the same age. They are better because they are safer drivers (texting teenagers being the obvious exception).
Danica Patrick exemplifies this fact, and it should be noted well. Yes, she has continued to break down barriers for women drivers; others like Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James who came before and current and future female racers will continue the trend. But how about it? Could it be that female race drivers are better than their male counterparts as well, at least in some areas? I say yes and will elaborate here:
Danica holds the current IndyCar series record (of any driver regardless of gender) for greatest number of consecutive races in which a driver was still running at the finish (46 and counting at the time of this writing). This is amazing and testament to her as a careful driver, and it may be a clue to how differently women drive than men. Men (and I can speak for myself) tend to focus in on a single point and go directly after it. In aerial combat, this is called target fixation and can get you killed, that is, if you are intently focused on the target, you’ll miss the guy who gets you from behind. Women tend to look at all the elements and take them into account when pursuing a goal. This is most likely a vestige of our ancestry: Men would go off on the hunt and focus on a particular bison and target a certain area with their single-pointed spears. Women would collect and gather from a variety of plants and bushes, being careful to select only the non-poisonous berries.
If you watch Danica at the track (TV “coverage” rarely covers this), you can see that she doesn’t often qualify up front nor is she overtly aggressive during the race. But on re-starts, especially the double-file ones, she almost always gains several positions right away. And perhaps her biggest ace in the hole, particularly on ovals, is her uncanny ability to read the slower traffic ahead of her and be patient enough to time the gap properly to make pass after pass. She’ll even pass a faster car ahead of her in the race, as well as the backmarker, because she waits for the other to check up behind a lapped car and she goes around them both. This is an incredible skill she has mastered and whether she knows it or not, may be partially attributed to one of the many qualities that make women the unique and incredible creatures that they are. And if I may quote the great philosopher/musician Kris Kristofferson here, “If God made something better than a woman, he kept it to himself.”
So, if Danica gets dolled up to sell antifreeze, complete with sexual innuendos geared toward adolescent boys (of all ages), then so be it. If Dan Wheldon gets movie star teeth and wears tight pants, so what? If Texas Motor Speedway promoter Eddie Gossage pimps out the “American Sweetheart” girls in skimpy spandex to bring more dudes out to the track, then go for it. They are all doing what needs to be done and they are giving us what we want – or at least what Madison Avenue thinks we want. Either way, it raises the funds for the drivers to race in the sport we all enjoy so much.
And, in the post-Danica vacuum of 2012, if IndyCar sponsors need a pretty face to sell petrol, if young girls need a racing role model in open wheel, and if guys need another hottie who also won in the ladder series, I have another word for you.
One word, two syllables: BIA.
ps. I’m in need of funds to continue my IndySoup.com venture, so if any advertisers out there are in need of a 40-something, ex-80’s hair band rocker dude with perfect teeth, a full head of hair and a golden speaking voice, I’m available.