It’s a sport the British public knows next-to-nothing about. Even vast swathes of the sports-mad US take little interest. But tomorrow, millions who might never have watched NASCAR before will be gripped by the US motorsport’s signature race.
And when 30-year-old Danica Patrick starts the Daytona 500 in pole position, she will enter the almanacs as what at least one commentator has called, “the most important female athlete on the planet”. The NASCAR season opens each year with 200 laps of the Daytona International Speedway in Florida, a total of 500 miles. Patrick covered her qualifying lap of the two-and-a-half mile track in 45.817 seconds, averaging 196.434mph, to become the first female driver ever to take pole position at a major NASCAR race. The last woman to come close was Janet Guthrie, who started the event in ninth place in 1977.
Thanks to its reliance on technology and mental toughness over strength and size, motor-racing is one of the few sports in which men and women can compete on equal terms.
As Guthrie, now 74, told USA Today: “For most of human history, broad shoulders and big muscles made the difference… It’s only been the last 100 years or so where it isn’t always the case.”
In The Atlantic, sports writer Hampton Stevens said Patrick’s achievement should be compared to Tiger Woods breaking racial barriers by winning the Masters golf tournament. “If Patrick could win the race on Sunday, or any time during her career, it would arguably… be the most socially significant thing to happen in American sports since Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball, or ever. At the very least, Patrick winning at Daytona would be the single greatest moment in the history of women in pro sports.”
One of the men racing against Patrick tomorrow is her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, 25, who qualified in 12th. Patrick, who is racing in her first season in NASCAR’s top tier, the Sprint Cup Series, has only won one professional race. She told ESPN: “I think it’s going to be hard and I wouldn’t consider myself a favourite to win.”