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Praise and some cheap shots for Danica Patrick

It's been somewhat disconcerting to observe the reaction following Danica Patrick's victory in the Japan Indy 300 last weekend.

Published April 26, 2008
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It’s been somewhat disconcerting to observe the reaction following Danica Patrick’s victory in the Japan Indy 300 last weekend.

Outside the racing fraternity, it’s been stupendous and popular. Last Sunday morning, for instance, only hours after she won the race (Saturday night at Twin Ring Motegi because of the time difference), her story was on the front page of The New York Times.

She got top play on all the Sunday U.S. TV network news shows and was front-of-site on CNN.com, USAtoday.com and so-on dot com

All week, she got the royal treatment from the Today Show, David Letterman, Larry King and the Live with Regis and Kelly show. It was all great stuff.

Inside the racing fraternity, however, it was a different story. After an initial outpouring of congratulations and support, the whispers started:

IRL offficials should have thrown the yellow in the closing stages when Ryan Briscoe brushed the wall but didn’t because it wanted Patrick to win. If it had been anybody else, there would have been a yellow.

After initially saying, in post-race interviews, that she’d been too fast for him, Helio Castroneves (who finished second) started telling people that he thought she had been lapped and that’s why he didn’t put up a fight when she passed him.

Graham Rahal told an ESPN television audience that Patrick’s win was just that, a win – “not a particularly classy win, but a win anyway.”

And, last, she didn’t win on speed but on strategy so it’s a tainted victory.

Talk about sour grapes.

Danica Patrick did something last Saturday night in Japan that no woman has ever done before in the history of sports, period. She beat the men at their own game at the same time.

It doesn’t matter how or why because only one thing mattters: she won.

And regardless of what you might have heard, it wasn’t easy.

Now, she was always in contention. With 55 laps to go, there was a yellow and everyone pitted for fuel and tires. Four laps later, with a lap to go before the green, she ducked back into the pits for a quick fuel topoff – as did Castroneves and Ed Carpenter.

I was watching the race via live streaming on indyracing.com and colour commentator Davey Hamilton immediately said that if there were no yellows and those three took it easy that they could finish 1-2-3 in the race because everybody else would have to stop again.

As soon as the race went green, Patrick held back but Carpenter and Castroneves started racing each other as well as anybody else who happened to be around and Hamilton made note of that, too.

“I don’t know what they’re doing that for,” he said. “Those two guys are racing – and they might be throwing away this race.”

Which is what happened. There were no yellows (see conspiracy theory No.1 above) and leaders Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon, et al, had to duck in and out of the pits. Even Carpenter had to pit, because his adrenaline got the better of him and instead of cooling it, he burned off all that extra fuel.

With a lap and a half to go, the dawdling Patrick made her move (she’d actually been 18 seconds behind at one point) and blew past Castroneves as if he was standing still. Because he’d been dicing too much too, he didn’t have the fuel left to fight her off.

But here’s where the double-standard kicked in. Her win became “tainted.”

Didn’t hear that after the NASCAR race at Phoenix two weeks ago when winner Jimmy Johnson was told to “slow down, slown down” to save fuel in order to make it to the finish in front. Didn’t hear that at Indy two years ago, either, when winner Sam Hornish Jr. did exactly the same thing Patrick did and then had enough fuel left to run down Marco Andretti.

And as far as Castroneves telling people that he didn’t know she was passing him for position, I will again quote Davey Hamilton:

“I can’t say that Helio isn’t telling the truth (about the pass) but he’s driving for Penske, which is the most experienced and winningest team in all of IndyCar racing.

“Roger is on the radio in the pits and Helio has a spotter. I find hard to believe that Helio didn’t know what was going on out there.”

For her part, Patrick – who, by the way, made her first professional start right here in Toronto in a Barber Dodge race at the 2002 Molson Indy – has taken the criticism from the boo-birds in stride.

“If that’s the way they feel, fine,” she said in a TV interview last Sunday night. “No matter what I do, I will never be able to win people like that over because whatever I do will never be good enough for them. So I don’t let it bother me.”

It’s best to have that attitude. Of course, if she keeps winning, she will have every right to start hitting back.

Charlotte Whitton was the mayor of Ottawa back in the 1960s when there were not many women in politics or positions of power, period. After being on the receiving end of countless putdowns sent her way by male opponents, Whitton famously said:

“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.”

Then, with the timing of Jack Benny, she added: “Luckily, this is not difficult.”

Somebody should email that to Danica Patrick.

Norris McDonald writes on motorsport every week in Wheels. He can be reached at nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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