By J.D. Hellman
Danica Patrick has not given up on racing in NASCAR in 2018. But she’ll only return, she says, if she has a chance to be competitive.
In other words, she is looking for a well-financed team with decent sponsorship and cars that have a chance to win every week.
But given there may be more drivers available for too few seats in NASCAR's Cup Series next season, Patrick could be one of the odd men – err, women – out.
If that’s the case, no matter how much she hopes, she’ll likely not be at Daytona next year – except maybe as a fan. No Daytona, no Talladega, no Bristol, no Indianapolis, no Sonoma, no Darlington – and all the rest of the venues the Cup Series visits in the course of a season.
As for Patrick going back to IndyCar, forget it. Not happening. She doesn’t want to go back, and it’s questionable if series officials would want her back.
Ditto for the possibility of her going to Formula One. That may have been in play five or six years ago, but now she’s a forgotten afterthought.
And forget sports car racing (like IMSA) or dirt track racing in sprints or midgets – even though she did take part in one of Tony Stewart’s Prelude to the Dream exhibitions at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, finishing 15th in a 26-car field in 2012.
But there’s one form of motorsport that Patrick could become an immediate superstar before she even climbed into a car.
She’d get a chance for all the high-speed thrills she wants. She’d be a huge fan favorite. She’d make a ton of money selling souvenirs. And she’d help prop up a series that is sagging both in at-track attendance, and especially on TV, despite its much ballyhooed on-air deal with Fox Sports 1.
All she has to do is learn how to drive 330-plus mph in 1,000 feet and in a straight line. Piece of cake, right?
Yes, I’m talking about Patrick pivoting to race in the NHRA – the National Hot Rod Association for those unfamiliar with straight-line racing.
Having Patrick race in the NHRA is not as silly or crazy as it sounds.
In the NHRA she’d have one thing she has never had in NASCAR nor IndyCar (except for the Indy 500): a number of other women as competitors.
She’d likely become the second-most popular driver in NHRA almost from the start, only behind John Force. And if/when the 68-year-old Force retires – rumored to be in two more seasons – Patrick would become No. 1 in terms of popularity in the NHRA, essentially the female Dale Earnhardt Jr. of drag racing.
Patrick has spent much of her career not only showing women can compete with men in racing but also serving as a role model for countless female drivers who might never have considered racing if it wasn’t for the road she paved.
Racing in the NHRA would be EXACTLY what Patrick has advocated for years: being in a place that not only encourages equal pay and play for women but also one that has seen great success by female drivers.
Don’t believe me? Let’s give you a quick breakdown of current female competitors in NHRA’s four pro classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle.
(Mark J Rebilas, USA Today)
TOP FUEL: Two of the 10 drivers in this year’s playoffs are women – Brittany Force (daughter of John Force) is third in the playoffs, while Leah Pritchett is seventh.
FUNNY CAR: Courtney Force is ranked No. 3 in the playoffs, while Alexis DeJoria failed to make the playoffs but is 11th in the standings with three races left in the season.
PRO STOCK: Erica Enders is sixth in the playoffs. Enders became the first woman to win a Pro Stock championship in NHRA history in 2014 and then repeated in 2015.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Karen Stoffer and Angie Smith are eighth and ninth in the playoffs, respectively. Four-time champion Angelle Sampey (13th) and Melissa Surber (16th) failed to make this year’s playoffs, but they’re still competing and trying to play the role of spoiler.
That’s nine female racers in the NHRA’s four top series, 900 percent more than in NASCAR's Cup Series. And consider this: If Patrick doesn’t find a competitive team to drive for in the Cup next season, there will once again be ZERO female drivers in NASCAR’s premier series in 2018.
That doesn’t speak very highly for a motorsports sanctioning body and series like NASCAR that for the past decade-plus has been touting how much it continues to improve its diversity efforts, particularly for women and minorities.
Now, I understand why Patrick hasn’t made any public comments about the NHRA. Maybe she hasn’t considered it as an option. Maybe she feels it would be a huge step down. Maybe she feels it would be demeaning after all the time she has spent in open-wheel and NASCAR Cup and Xfinity competition.
Or maybe she’s just not interested. I can respect that.
But let’s face it: If the 35-year-old Patrick wants to continue her racing career, she has a much better chance of sticking around NHRA for another 10 or 15 more years, as opposed to maybe 3-4 years, tops, left in NASCAR or IndyCar.
Remember, John Force is 68. Defending Funny Car champion Ron Capps is 52. Eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher turns 48 on Christmas Day.
Patrick would be a perfect fit in either Top Fuel or Funny Car, but not so much in Pro Stock, as it’s a series that is in both a period of transition and upheaval.
All she has to do is pick up the phone and call NHRA President Peter Clifford or perhaps John Force or powerful team owner Don Schumacher.
Trust me, they’d be more than happy to take her call and to extol all the virtues of the NHRA.
We all know how popular and successful three-time Top Fuel champion and drag racing pioneer Shirley Muldowney was in the 1970s and '80s. She blazed the trail for not only women in drag racing but also for female athletes in general.
Patrick has the potential – if she can keep a Top Fueler or Funny Car under control at 330-plus mph – to become this generation’s Muldowney.
A number of former athletes in other sports moved into drag racing during their careers including ex-NASCAR and IndyCar star John Andretti, former NBA players Larry Nance and Tom Hammonds, baseball player Jack Clark, and more recently, even NASCAR star Kurt Busch flirted with drag racing a few times.
Heck, even Richard Petty drag raced for a time while his team was embroiled in a dispute with NASCAR over the use of Chrysler Hemis in 1965.
Considering how her NASCAR career has gone – far below rather than beyond expectations, indeed – Patrick has a chance for redemption and career revitalization.
Plus, she wouldn’t have to worry about one of her biggest problems: turning left.
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