Danica Patrick may not have won the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, but she showed that she's certainly capable of doing so.
She finished fourth, and was leading up until the very end. Lots of hype surrounded the race, partly because Patrick was the first female driver to enter the race with a good shot at winning, partly because the American sporting press had to have been hungry for a story -- and story -- to latch onto in the relatively low-profile world of open-wheel racing, and, let's be honest, partly because Patrick is a smokin' hot.
Still, Patrick more or less lived up to the hype with her fourth-place finish, running a race that proved (to the untrained eye such as mine, at least) that she belongs among the elite drivers in the world.
Which, incidentally, brings up an issue I've wondered about for years now: if women can (and do, and should) compete side-by-side with men in auto racing, why can't they do so in other sports that are less reliant on raw athletic ability and more about reflexes, poise and/or strategy? There's no such thing as women's auto racing, so why, for instance, is there such a thing as women's bowling, or women's billiards? Do men really have such an advantage in bowling and billiards that it would be unfair to make women compete against them? After all, Liz Johnson made the finals of a PBA tournament in March, becoming the first woman ever to do so.
We all know that women can't compete with men on an elite level in sports that require a great deal of brute strength or blinding speed (sorry, but they can't. If one day they can, then great. They can't now. Don't argue. I'm not saying they shouldn't be allowed to; of course they should. But, they can't. The ones who have tried have had middling careers in the minor leagues of their sport, which is impressive and noteworthy but isn't the same as competing against the men at the absolute highest level), but what about sports that don't? Even in golf, in which strength is a decided advantage, women like Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie have shown that they can complete along side men on the PGA Tour (if not necessarily beat all those men to win a tournament). There's so much technique and poise required in golf that lack of strength can be overcome. If women can take on the men in golf, certainly billiards and bowling shouldn't be a problem.
Anyway. Back to Danica Patrick. I don't want to make too much of a fourth-place finish, but if initial reactions are any indication it should be enough to make Patrick a big, big star even if she doesn't live up to her promise as a driver (heck, Anna Kournikova never made it past the semifinals of a Grand Slam event, and she ended up carving out a decent living for herself). Patrick is talented, personable, driven and, in case you forgot...
What's more, she comes along at a time when her sport desperately needs a star. NASCAR has long since eclipsed IRL in popularity, the Daytona 500 is now American auto racing's premier event, and most sports fans would never remember the name of the Indy 500 winner two or three days later if he didn't show up on Letterman to remind them. Can you imagine how ecstatic IRL must be to have people paying attention again? You can be they'll do all they can to make sure that Danica Patrick maintains a high profile.
And I'm all for it. I like seeing the gals compete with the guys. Not that it hurts when those gals look like Danica Patrick. Or course, even if she looked a lot worse, she'd still be a great driver, and it would still be a great story.
But she doesn't look a lot worse; she looks like this.