All Danica, all the time
Danica Patrick yes, Danica Patrick right here on our stage, Danica Patrick oh, and have I mentioned Danica Patrick?
Yes, it's the Danica Patrick 500 tomorrow on ESPN, and if there are other drivers, we'll be damned if we know who they are.
And you know who we should feel for here in this potentially gruesome situation?
I'll give you a hint. Her initials are Danica Patrick.
The official name for Patrick's first race since Indianapolis is the Bombardier Learjet 500, which would be a cool name no matter who was driving.
But given the supernova of publicity surrounding all things Patrick, one forgets that she finished fourth at Indy; was not the first woman ever to drive the famous race; and media blitzes like these very often turn out badly for the recipient.
Understand here that Patrick wants to be a driver, first and foremost. Rich and famous, sure, but she would like to be evaluated as a driver first.
That means her honeymoon (for lack of a better word) will be fairly short.
You see, as a skilled woman, she would have some time to grow into the profile being constructed for her, but as an attractive woman with show business links (David Letterman) and the next-big-thing machinery at her back, she is also going to be held up to the Anna Kournikova yardstick, which, put crudely, is this:
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, she's hot and all, but she hasn't won anything."
It's a cruel pigeonhole, as clichéd as it is cramped, but you can bet it's on the table already. On the cover of Sports Illustrated. The story of her trip to England to learn the Formula 1 game. The refreshing burst of good publicity she shined on the dinosaur that was the Indy 500. The wing of her Indy car on eBay drawing extraordinary interest from the too-much-disposable-income crowd. Hell, her driving resume. Taken together, the noise surrounding her emergence is what it ought to be, given the tenor of the times and her evident gifts.
She is, in short, the front and center motorsports story of the year, even if Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart want to enter demolition derbies against each other. An easily recognizable icon of searing eyes and long black hair, her name already shortened to one-name status. It's all come as fast as Turn Four.
But the backhand comes even faster.
If she wins, hey, she could be Tiger Woods, and it's all good.
But if she doesn't, the "What's Wrong With Danica?" stories will come with dyspeptic ferocity. Nothing offends quite like being perceived as an overhyped fraud, and to the media's general shame, they bestow overhyped fraud status after only a few sightings. There is no reason to think Patrick will be spared just because she's, well, Danica.
None of this should be Patrick's problem, of course, but it is. It's like falling down a flight of stairs blaming gravity on the way down isn't going to break your fall.
She has already been criticized for not being 50 pounds heavier than she is, which sets centuries of weight-based sexism on its ear. Her shadow has obliterated Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who has had the good grace and self-preservation instincts to be nothing but complimentary in return.
But at some point (read: either now or soon thereafter) she will have to win a race. And then another. And then more after that.
You see, while there may be some cache in being a pioneer, it's still better to be a winner. And to be both well, then all the hype will have been both prescient and worthwhile.
Is the risk-reward ratio fair? Well, yes and no. Yes, because the reward is so spectacular. No, because this is not an issue that men face as readily. They get to grow into their gigs at a slightly more leisurely pace, and their youth is forgiven as just another bar to clear.
But because Kournikova became the living, breathing example of fame before finish, Patrick will be held to the same standard, only in a greatly collapsed period of time. If she's as good as everyone says, she'll win races. If everyone's wrong, though, it's not everyone who has to pay. It's her.
So while she whizzes around Texas Motor Speedway Saturday, controlling the air time of the telecast the way Woods dominates golf tournaments by simply entering them, keep in mind what's at stake here. The shelf life of tolerance for Danica Patrick will be harshly short until she wins.
Rest assured, this is not a revelation to her and she's played along without irritation. But there's nothing to be done to change the dynamic, for hype threatens as much as it offers.
So Danica Patrick is on the clock, and not just Saturday. This is her world, and we're all a little too welcome to it.
Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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