Daytona 500: Danica Patrick Can Break Ground for Women's Sports with Victory
At the risk of sounding slightly hyperbolic, this weekend has the potential to fundamentally alter the prism through which we view women's sports.
On Saturday, Ronda Rousey will take on Liz Carmouche in the first women's fight ever sanctioned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship at UFC 157.
It's an event that UFC president Dana White said on multiple occasions would never happen. There have been many reasons cited for the UFC's hesitance to allow women into the Octagon, some wondering about the level of mainstream interest while others seemed horrified by the dangers of the sport.
Excuse me while I bathe in the chauvinism.
Then Rousey became an overnight phenomenon, and the skepticism somehow subsided. Here was a woman who was not only dominant inside the ring—Rousey is 6-0, all victories coming by submission—but also appealing on an aesthetic level. Once Rousey rose to fame, White's tone completely changed and an entire division was built on her brand.
Not only is Rousey participating in the event, she's the headliner. Never mind that the loaded card features household names like Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida. Rousey's name (along with Carmouche's) adorns every single piece of advertisement you will see for UFC 157.
Think about that. A very short time ago, White probably wouldn't have allowed Rousey to walk through his office door. Now, she's on the precipice of becoming the mainstream face of all things mixed martial arts.
In essence, Rousey is becoming what many hoped Danica Patrick would be for motorsports. A racing prodigy who ascended to national popularity in 2005 in the IndyCar series, Patrick's career has always been viewed as filled with missed potential.
She only stood on the podium seven times in as many years in IndyCar and never finished any higher than fifth in the standings. Never mind the fact that Patrick is almost unarguably the best woman driver in racing history. Or that Patrick is the only woman to ever win an IndyCar race, and her third-place finish at the 2009 Indianapolis 500 was the best in that race as well.
Patrick's accomplishments came in open-wheel racing, a sport that's completely ignored in the United States outside of the Indianapolis 500. As the theory went, until Patrick made the full-time move to NASCAR's top circuit, she would always be the over-hyped girl from the Go Daddy commercials rather than a viable figure among the world's greatest drivers.
Now, let's keep in mind that the racing community's golden boy is Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose recent career (prior to 2012) has been far closer to "legacy kid" than following in the old man's footsteps.
How can the racing community prop up Earnhardt while taking down Patrick? Well, I shouldn't have to answer that question for you. It's a "good ol' boys" club at its very finest, one that Patrick has the potential to send crashing down this weekend.
As most know, Patrick sits on the pole for this Sunday's Daytona 500. Her average speed of 196.434 mph defeated legendary driver Jeff Gordon by .142 mph, a fact that some were quick to attribute to a weight advantage, per ESPN's David Newton.
Once again, never mind that fact that no woman had ever qualified higher than 18th for the Daytona 500 or ninth in a Sprint Cup race period prior to Patrick's effort this year. Or that some of the male drivers on circuit aren't that much heavier than Patrick's listed weight of 120 pounds.
Detracting from Patrick's accomplishment is not only silly, it's mean-spirited. And if she comes away victorious from the pole on Sunday, that will only become more apparent.
It's hard to quantify what this weekend will mean to the women's sports community. Rousey will almost certainly defeat Carmouche, likely in the first round, and we'll go on marveling her dominance of the MMA world. But we'll never get to see her fight against a man, thereby (unfairly) putting her in a stratosphere with Cheryl Miller and others who get mentioned among the greatest "women athletes."
Patrick has an opportunity for something much greater in the macro sense. A victory on Sunday, in NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl, would transcend motorsports. It would be one of the biggest accomplishments for women's sports since King took down Bobby Riggs on national television.
Rousey and Patrick have both been given the opportunity to enact real change for women's sports this weekend. Not by their looks or ability to read a cue card in a commercial, but by their performance in their chosen field.
Here's to hoping they take advantage and end this nonsense once and for all.