The Daytona 500 was the race to which I volunteered to go. The biggest race of the season is the first race of the season. The weather is warmer and I wasn’t behind the full-time NASCAR writers (if there still are full-time NASCAR writers). The track is the town. Fly into Daytona Beach International Airport and you practically land in the Daytona International Speedway infield.
I talked to the great Junior Johnson there. Man he is a storyteller, and he has stories to tell. He had me at revenuers. The father of a driver who didn’t like what I wrote about his son told a co-writer he was going to beat me up. Ran into the son at a U2 concert, and bought the first round. We were good. Not sure about the dad, though.
I was in Daytona in 2012 when Danica Patrick, who Sunday will compete in her final Daytona 500, competed in her first. That year, the race ceased to be the Daytona 500 and became the Danica 500. A few veteran drivers resented the attention, as did fans. But she hadn’t done anything. We, the media, did.
Patrick was a story. The daughters of several NASCAR drivers would knock gently on her motor-home door and ask for an autograph. That was the power of Patrick. We want to see people that remind us of us, whether it’s on a TV show, at the Oscars or on the track or field. How many women compete with men in a major sport?
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Patrick had the opportunity. She drove full-time for five years and and competed on the track but never competed for a title. She never made the playoffs. I compared her once to former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow. Patrick’s fans were not pleased about the comparison. Tebow’s weren’t, either.
Despite failing to attain the success she craved, she made an impact. She was glamorous, and sponsors capitalized. I remember talking to her after she won the pole at the 2013 Daytona 500, a race in which she would finish a career-high eighth.
If there was a TV show or a magazine cover, Patrick was on it. I’m not talking solely about sports. She helped NASCAR attain the national attention it craved.
Patrick is barely 5-feet, but when she shakes your hand, the time she spends in the gym is evident. Despite failing to challenge the sport’s best drivers, she made a difference. Girls looked at her and thought, why not me? That matters. And because it does, so does she.