MICHAEL KNIGHT: WHY DRAG RACING FANS OUGHT TO BE MAD
Drag racing fans should be mad as hell and they shouldn’t take it anymore.
I’m sure you know why.
More accurately: The fawning, sweet-as-maple syrup and sometimes TMZesque media coverage of Danica Patrick, her historic Daytona 500 pole position and her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
I’ve been in-and-around journalism for close to five decades. I’ve never been more embarrassed for, and ashamed of, this once proud profession. It’s an outrage. It’s a disgrace.
While Courtney Force was actually WINNING the Funny Car portion of the Winternationals and Erica Enders-Stevens the Pro Stock class at the Arizona Nationals, Patrick commanded 99 percent of the media’s attention with an eighth-place showing in The Great American Race.
“It's a little frustrating,” Courtney Force admitted to me.
Now, let me be clear: I don’t blame Danica. I actually asked her about this and will share her answer in a few paragraphs.
God forgive me, please, but what I’m doing here is what corrupt politicians and dishonest athletes have done for decades: I’m blaming the media.
In this case, however, they deserve it.
At Daytona 500 media day, the first 18 -- EIGHTEEN! -- questions asked Patrick were about her dating relationship with double NASCAR Nationwide series champion Stenhouse. The first 21 -- TWENTY ONE! -- questions to Stenhouse dealt with Danica. The first question to Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski was, well, you guessed it. Questions 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 to five-time titlist Jimmie Johnson? I don’t have to tell you.
“God. We're at Daytona and this is the stuff we're talking about at Daytona,” said Tony Stewart. “Amazing.”
The cotton-candy tone reminded me of the way MSNBC anchors treat President Obama. Especially guilty: ESPN. (Surprise!) And when that wasn’t the modus operanti, the “reports” were full of sophomoric sexual innuendo.
At least one radio interview and newspaper story included Patrick’s victory lane “kissing strategy” (she’d kiss Stenhouse but not Miss Sprint Cup.)
“I'm like a bear with his baby cub: I'm going to lean toward my kid,” John Force told me at Firebird Raceway. “But, in the big picture, they are NASCAR and the world bows-down to them. We don't have that clout.”
I then sat in John’s motorcoach with his daughters and they had their rightful -- and respectful -- say.
Courtney: “I guess I'm not too surprised. NASCAR is so huge and is more well-known than NHRA. I give her (Danica) props for what she's accomplished and it is a big deal that she's the first one that's done that (Cup pole position) in NASCAR.
“I get it, but, yeah, I was a little disappointed. I wanted my team and NHRA to get the exposure. I didn't really care if I got it or not. I wish we could have gotten a little more but that's the way it goes, I guess.
“She is a female in the sport, and that is hard, but I think it might be harder for her in NASCAR. The women here have it pretty easy compared to her.
“I think that's the great thing about NHRA: It's (female success) more widely accepted here. Shirley Muldowney paved the way for us and it's no big surprise a woman succeeding in our sport. Maybe they're (NASCAR) behind the game a little.”
Ashley Force Hood: “NHRA is ahead of NASCAR on that. I didn't hear one person say (after Courtney’s Pomona win), 'Good job. You got a girl to win.' It was, 'You guys had a great running car (Traxxas Ford Mustang).' That's what makes us proud.
“Sometimes you feel like you're taking a step back when people make a big deal, 'Oh, the first girl . . . ' That's not what your goal is out here. You want to be better than everyone you're competing against. It didn't come out in the media the way we hoped it would be but the people who know how hard these cars are to get down the track were impressed.”
Brittany Force: “We all know out here how great that was for her (Courtney) even though it wasn't in the headlines. We wish it were.”
I asked thoughtful Ron Capps, who went on to win Firebird’s Funny Car event in the NAPA Dodge Charger, his thoughts:
“The Danica thing, it does frustrate me,” said Capps. “What are you going to do? Guess what? What's gone on with her the last couple of weeks (at Daytona) has been above and beyond baseball, NBA, right up there with Lebron (James). It's not just us (NHRA.)
“The reason is we just don't seem to have . . . we can't just rely on team publicists to do our bragging. We have to have somebody to do what NASCAR is doing with the media.”
A week later, at Phoenix International Raceway, I interviewed Patrick for 20 minutes for an Arizona Republic Q&A. I asked her if she understood why her drag racing counterparts would feel slighted by the media.
“All I can say is I’ve had sponsors along the way that have done a great job promoting me and building my brand and making me somebody that America has had a chance to follow,” said Danica. “That’s a storyline that tends to continue and I’m very fortunate for that. It’s allowed for people to see my personality more, maybe more than some others, because I’ve had more opportunities to show it in different ways.
“I’m grateful for that. All I can say is how I came to be where I am and I will continue to make the most of my opportunities.”
Opportunity. That’s what this is. That’s what I’ve been telling the drag racing fans who have vented to me about this in recent weeks.
The next time you see or hear another of these gushy Danica-as-superstar stories, take the time to write a polite E-mail or note to the writer or broadcaster. Ask if they know of drag racing’s proud heritage of accomplished female racers. Say you’d love to have that reporter do a story on any of NHRA’s winning women. Tell ‘em you are sure many other readers/listeners/viewers would, too. Remind them that the straight-line sport is the most American of all American motorsports.
And . . .
Go ahead and attach a photo of Courtney. (For your convenience, a good one is included with this column.)
Honestly, it’s OK. Especially in today’s celebrity-driven, People magazine, looks-count, photo-op, sound-bite media world.
Danica and her people have understood that for years.
Follow Michael Knight on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500