I can’t remember the last time the Indianapolis 500 got this much attention.
The race is hot because Danica Patrick is starting in Row 2, and Danica Patrick is hot. I don’t mean did you see her pix in FHM magazine hot, though she’s hot enough in that sense to get her pictures in FHM. And she wouldn’t be hot like this if she weren’t hot like that.
I mean when’s the last time an American driver became the biggest celebrity in open wheel without having won Indy? When’s the last time a rookie driver went on David Letterman’s show, even if Letterman owned the driver’s team, as he co-owns hers?
The old boys were on to something 29 years ago when Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Let one woman in and next thing you know the whole thing’ll be spoiled for the men. The women’ll take over.
Patrick is the fourth woman to start in the Indy 500, but the first who’s been treated seriously by those who know about these things as a threat to win. For the moment, what she seems to have spoiled is the Indy Racing League’s inexorable decline.
Guthrie, owner of a ninth-place finish in 1978 that’s still the best ever for a woman, has pointed out that Patrick’s the first woman to get to the Brickyard with the equipment and financial backing necessary to win. Lyn St. James started seven times in the ’90s and Sarah Fisher carried the flag for the last five years before losing her sponsorship and moving on to stock cars.
That’s it. Not exactly taking over. But Patrick heralds a new era by being a woman who’s not at Indy as just a token or a curiosity, though she is also those things. She’s reportedly respected and accepted by the male drivers, who, Patrick likes to point out, have realized that when people are watching her, they’re also watching them.
And what about fans? Well, any open-wheel fan would have to be a fool not to realize the boon Patrick is bringing to a sport that’s been hammered by political squabbles and left in the dust by NASCAR.
If people are interested in her, they’re interested. And if other women follow her into the big time, this new fan demographic that’s opened up for the moment will stay open to at least some extent.
It’s a tall order to expect more Danica Patricks to follow. As Christine Brennan notes in USA Today, “You have to look good and be able to drive 200 mph. What a demanding profession.”
And Patrick’s not just a driver who can wear a leather bikini. She really is fast, really does, if the experts are right, have what it takes to win. In other words, in the shorthand that both Patrick and team co-owner Bobby Rahal use, Patrick is no Anna Kournikova.
She’s also tough and forthright and quotable — because she’s a woman and 5-foot-1, this is usually referred to as being feisty. And she has a great story, having left her heartland hometown of Roscoe, Ill., at 16 and gone to England on her own to pay dues in that country’s brutal racing minor leagues, where she excelled.
She’ll be a tough act to follow whether she ever wins Indy or not, but the good thing is the women who follow won’t have to be Danica Patrick.
They’ll have to be fast and look reasonably good, make no mistake. But that’s just a reality in this most expensive sport, and it’s true for the boys too. Teams expect their drivers to be ready for prime time, telegenic and endorsement friendly. The world belongs to marketing executives. The rest of us just live here.
And they’ll have to be tough too, because it’s going to be a long time before women driving at Indy are as commonplace as women playing basketball or any of the other sports where they used to be unwelcome. But male race-car drivers have to be tough too.
St. James, the seven-time Indy starter who has mentored Patrick, says the women are coming, citing statistics to whoever will listen about the large numbers of girls participating in youth events like soapbox derbies and quarter midget races.
I hope she’s right. It’s fun to be interested in the Indianapolis 500.
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Heat even series, still in trouble [PERMALINK]
Dwyane Wade and an improved defense led the Miami Heat to a 92-86 win over the Detroit Pistons Wednesday night in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The win tied the series and kept the Heat from falling into an impossible 0-2 hole.
But they’re still in big trouble.
That’s because Wade played a game for the ages. And it’s because the Pistons were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball, repeatedly turning it over on fast breaks.
And it’s because Shaquille O’Neal turned in a decent game. Certainly not dominant — 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 33 minutes — but solid, similar to his Game 1 performance.
And still the Heat had to hang on tight to win.
Wade can’t be expected to turn in a game for the ages every night against the Pistons, who have shut him down three times out of five this year. Chauncey Billups, who averages fewer than two and a half turnovers a night, can’t be expected to cough it up eight times on a regular basis.
And at 33 Shaq is old and he’s hurting, a lot. He benefited from 12 off days before this series started, but he figures to wear down as he’s forced to play against a quick, battling team like Detroit every other night once an odd three-day hiatus ends Sunday.
A healthy, dominant Shaq would have given the Heat a good chance in this series because that would have been their biggest edge. The Pistons don’t have anyone to match up. With Shaq playing like a mere mortal, the Heat have stolen one, and maybe they’ll steal another, but in the series, they’re in big trouble.
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Who can “take his’n and beat your’n”? [PERMALINK]
On Monday I mentioned in passing a famous quote about Bear Bryant: “He can take his’n and beat your’n, and he can take your’n and beat his’n.”
A squad of Miami Dolphins fans wrote to inform me that this ultimate coaching compliment wasn’t paid to Bryant, it was paid to Don Shula by Bum Phillips.
That didn’t sound right to me. Nobody would have quoted Phillips talking about Shula until Phillips became the coach of the Houston Oilers in 1975, and I was pretty sure the quote was older than that. I was also pretty sure it was about Bryant.
A Google search revealed all sorts of citations. Most of them had the quote praising Bryant and attributed it to either Jake Gaither, a legendary coach at Florida A&M, or Gene Stallings, who played for Bryant at Texas A&M, then was briefly a Bryant assistant at Alabama long before becoming the head coach himself. There were also citations of Phillips saying it about Shula and about Bryant.
So I turned to someone who ought to know, my former stablemate Allen Barra, an Alabaman who has just completed a biography of Bryant called “The Last Coach: A Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant” for W.W. Norton.
“Gaither and Charlie McClendon both said it about Bear Bryant,” Barra wrote in an e-mail. McClendon was an assistant to Bryant at Kentucky before becoming a longtime assistant and then head coach at LSU. “No one is exactly sure who said it first, or exactly which way they said it, but both said it.”
Stallings seems to get credit for the quote so often because he’s just a likely suspect. And so is Phillips.
Barra pointed out that Bum was an assistant coach for Bryant at Texas A&M in the mid-’50s, was a minor legend in Texas football circles for years before taking the Oilers job, and said a lot of quotable things about Bryant in those days.
But the “his’n” quote wasn’t his’n. If he said it about Shula, he borrowed it.
Previous column: Bucks win top pick
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