That Danica Patrick became the first woman to earn the pole position at a Daytona 500 has been well established. Her eighth place finish today, which was the highest finish at the Daytona 500 by a woman in NASCAR history, along with the fact that she became the first woman to ever lead a lap at the circuit's Super Bowl have demonstrated that Patrick isn't merely the Go Daddy girl or a lust object for heterosexual male or lesbian alike.
It may unfortunately not put to rest derisive comments that Patrick "should go back in the kitchen," that still shamefully come up in 2013. A race official said that several years ago and didn't back down from his comments, at least not initially. According to a story in Autoweek.com dated Aug. 25, 2012, after Patrick came in ninth in a Nationwide series race in Bristol, Tenn., people took to Twitter to write sexist bile about Patrick.
That sort of ugliness has followed Patrick from her Indy Car days. Back when Patrick was in Indy Car racing and was considering a move to NASCAR, Examiner.com ran a column on Oct. 12, 2009 in which Greg Engle made the case that Patrick didn't belong in NASCAR. He made the case that having Patrick in NASCAR would shift the focus from her talents as a race car driver to her looks. As if several GoDaddy.com commercials featuring a scantily-clad Patrick didn't already do that.
I'm not writing all of this to state that I'm a huge Danica Patrick fan. I've been skeptical of her, not because I thought women don't belong in auto racing, and not because I don't think she can be a race car driver. She obviously had enough skill and talent to be a race car driver since she competed on the Indy Car circuit. My concern was the fact that she was getting so much attention from the media and most of her results didn't live up to the hype.
I can now proudly say I was wrong. Granted, Patrick didn't take the checkered flag in the biggest race of NASCAR's season, even though she was third heading into the final lap and led five of the 200 laps in the race. But finishing in the top 10 of such a major race announces to anyone who even pays a cursory glance to sports that Patrick is not just a pretty face or a pinup model. She's a serious competitor, illustrated by a comment from race winner Jimmie Johnson that he just saw a fast car and didn't think of it as being a woman driving it.
Patrick's success in the race doesn't close the door once and for all on discrimination against women. As we've seen with many outward or barely disguised racist comments toward President Barack Obama, electing an African-American as president didn't end racism. The New Orleans Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 didn't eliminate all the problems the city faced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. All of them were symbolic in vitally important ways.
Patrick's victory proved that women can compete against men in even some of the most male-dominated fields. Obama's victory gave many African-American parents an example to point to when they told their children they could be anything they wanted. The Super Bowl announced to the rest of the country that the city's revitalization efforts hadn't gone in vain.
The nasty comments about Patrick's gender in the too recent past demonstrate that we still have a long way to go before we can proclaim an ultimate victory in the battle for full equality. But sometimes, it's nice to see an example of how far we've come.