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Sports columns

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Associated Press
Danica Patrick, signing autographs Friday, became the first woman to win the Daytona 500 pole.

Miles to go for female racers

There’s an old saying in motor sports: “Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?”

That helps explain why Danica Patrick is where she is today – and why it took so long for a female racer to break a NASCAR record I set more than three decades ago.

Patrick will start from the pole position in Sunday’s Daytona 500 after setting the fastest qualifying time the previous week (with a top speed of 196.434 mph, for those keeping track). A woman in that spot is a historic first for NASCAR and an achievement that transcends motor sports.

But while we celebrate, it’s also reasonable to ask: Why has it taken so long to update the record books? For 36 years, until last Sunday, I had been the best female qualifier in a Cup race, with ninth-place starts at Talladega and Bristol in my rookie season. And as of this writing, my sixth-place finish at Bristol, also in 1977, remains the best Cup finish by a woman. That wasn’t what I was after, of course. I wanted to win Cup races, and I believe that I would have done so if I’d been able to find the money to continue.

Since then, many capable female drivers have come and gone – it’s not that there’s been a lack of talent. And it’s not just that the racing world is conservative or sexist, although those elements are there. The explanation lies in the extremely expensive nature of the sport. Patrick is the first woman who has been able to summon the mega-dollars necessary to field a front-running car, and last Sunday she made the most of it.

The chauvinism hasn’t gone away from racing in 36 years; you can see it in Internet comments about Patrick – a favorite epithet is “Danicant.” But my sense is that it isn’t as bad as it was.

At the same time, it may have gotten harder to navigate the world of money and sponsorships.

Top-level racing is a sport of enormous complexity. Fielding a competitive NASCAR team for a single year requires tens of millions of dollars.

Attracting sponsors to cover those costs is difficult. And it has been especially hard for women.

The toughest choice for any driver is whether to accept a ride in an inferior car in the hope that she can make it go faster than it has any right to go – and that someone will take notice and offer her a better ride next time. Or should she turn down such a ride and take the chance that she may never get access to good equipment?

I watched Swiss IndyCar racer Simona De Silvestro struggle all last year with a hopelessly uncompetitive Lotus. She kept on smiling, was gracious, had her feet on the ground – and this year she has a more competitive car. De Silvestro is an excellent driver, and I have high hopes for her. However, she is still not with one of the dominant teams.

Patrick has been luckier. Her parents spent six figures a year on her go-kart racing at the beginning of her career, according to news reports. Subsequently, she was taken under the wing of Texas oil magnate John Mecom for a foray to England, and then by Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal’s formidable Rahal-Letterman team. Her willingness to pose for racy photos in the girlie magazine FHM apparently didn’t hurt, either.

But even Patrick’s position isn’t assured. As recently as October, when she wasn’t having much success on the track, there were questions about whether her primary sponsor, GoDaddy, would continue to use her in its ads. USA Today reported: “Patrick’s Q Score, which tracks likeability, has recently been heading south, falling from 29 in 2010 to 19 in 2012.” Interestingly, the average Q Score for all race-car drivers is only 13. And sponsors have tended to be forgiving of male drivers who have lackluster seasons.

How many years will it be before another female driver starts from the pole position at Daytona? What will it take for more than a token woman to be accepted by a winning team? To be honest, I’m not sure. If Patrick races well this year, it may help – or not. All I know is that I long to see it happen.

Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, drove in 33 NASCAR races and had 11 IndyCar starts. She is the author of “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle.”