When a stock car is running at 196 miles per hour, it’s impossible to tell whether the driver is a man or a woman: The driver is just a blur without a trace of specific character to the rest of us awed bystanders. It’s one of the few instances in sports when women compete directly against men, with no allowances. When Danica Patrick crosses the start line in Sunday’s Daytona 500, her situation will be exactly the same as the guys: They’ll all be staring out of helmets at the road ahead, absorbing high speed sensory jolts while encased in 3,400 pounds of carbon and sheet metal.
Nevertheless, when it’s Patrick driving, the question inevitably arises: Is a racecar really genderless?
“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s a good question, whether men versus women have differences in reflex and response. But in general, yeah, I think the car doesn’t know the difference when the girl gets into it.”
We were talking by phone just a day after she had become the first woman ever to win the pole position for the Daytona 500, and questions about gender were inevitable. Patrick’s femininity dogs her. It’s the inescapable topic no matter what she does: If she runs hot in her Go Daddy car, she’s a barrier-breaker for women, and if she wrecks or finishes poorly, her detractors call her an over-sold pin-up girl, who takes victory laps for her gender without winning anything. Either way, she hits the public nerve.