Higgins: Janet Guthrie respects Danica Patrick, and you should, too

- Contributor
Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013

The people dissing Danica Patrick amuse me. Some are irritating and irrational in the extreme.

I would wager that 99.99 percent of the critics couldn’t do what she does in a racecar. If so, why don’t they get a helmet and a ride and show the world?

The Danica detractors emerged in force after she won the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Patrick ran a lap of 196.464 mph at Daytona International Speedway to qualify fastest for NASCAR’s biggest show, beating stock car racing’s top stars. She is the first woman to win a pole position at the sanctioning body’s major level in its long, colorful history, which dates to 1949. Her feat at the 2.5-mile Daytona track is an awesome accomplishment. But the nay-sayers and non-believers of her courage and driving talent are dismissive. “Cup Series officials allowed her Stewart-Haas team to fudge the rules with a big engine,” they say. Or “the timing was rigged.” And on and on … Ridiculous! I have spent way more than half of my 75 years in NASCAR garage areas covering the sport, mainly during 34 years at The Charlotte Observer. I became aware early on that the teams watch each other with keen, prying eyes.

They know when something is amiss on a rival’s cars, and never hesitate to be whistle-blowers to the point of outrage.

So give Danica the credit she deserves.

Her best-known female predecessor in the Cup Series does.

“She is to be congratulated,” Janet Guthrie said Monday. “What Danica did will remain a part of racing history for a long, long time. “When I became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500 back 36 years ago, it was viewed as a vintage step.”

Now Patrick has taken it a giant step further.

“If she should win the race it would be remarkable,” added Guthrie, the only woman other than Danica to run both the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s.

Along with Guthrie, there have been other capable women drivers through the years in NASCAR.

Shawna Robinson is the only victor in a touring division race, posting three victories in the now-defunct Dash Series for sub-compact cars in the 1980s.

Robinson became the first female winner of a pole in what is now the Nationwide Series, qualifying quickest at Atlanta in 1994. There were whispers in the garage area that some male rival was going to take her out. Intentional or not, it happened on the very first lap of the 300-mile race when two others went three-wide with Shawna in the third turn at Atlanta Motor Speedway. There was heavy contact and Robinson’s car sustained damage that was to sideline her later because of overheating.

Robinson was furious, charging that she was wrecked on purpose. However, officials called it “a racing accident” and no one was punished.

Far back in NASCAR’s colorful past women drivers competed in what has evolved into the Cup Series, a fact that seems widely forgotten.

Sara Christian made seven starts during the 1949 and ’50 seasons. Louise Smith ran 11 races from 1949-52. They competed against some of the toughest NASCAR pioneers, men like Buck Baker, Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner and the Flock brothers—Bob, Fonty and Tim.

I knew Louise Smith, who passed away in 2006. For many years she was in charge of “The Miss Southern 500” beauty pageant staged by Darlington Raceway.

There is something that Danica Patrick has very much in common with Smith. That is spunk.

Remember Danica going after female Indy-Car rival Milka Duno at Mid-Ohio in 2008? Patrick, angered by the Latin American driver holding her up, had to be restrained on pit road. What promised to be a great “girl fight” was narrowly avoided.

Danica also confronted the late Dan Wheldon physically after an Indy-Car incident at the Milwaukee Mile, giving him a shove.

So the Cup Series boys better watch out if they rile Patrick, a wee woman with big bravery.

Or else they might experience what the late Buck Baker, a recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, had to say of Smith.

“Not only could Louise beat you on the race track,” said Buck. “She could take you behind the grandstand and whip your (fanny).”

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