Sometimes, it’s nice to think that in one of the few professional sports without gender divisions, people can differentiate between two female athletes—you know, as if they’re unique individuals with their own unique goals in life. But that’s often a pipe dream, even in 2017.
That garbage mindset is all over NASCAR, and American motorsports in general. It’s a sport dominated by a predictable demographic—the wealthy, white male who often has family connections in the sport—and those who don’t fit the mold, like women, have a hard time breaking in. Treating those women as if they’re all the same doesn’t help.
The latest reminder: “The Next Danica (Or First Julia) Plots The Next Laps of Her NASCAR Career,” a Forbes feature on an upcoming driver, Julia Landauer, a 25-year-old Stanford grad and the only woman in NASCAR’s 2016-2017 “Next” developmental class. Landauer competes in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, a step below NASCAR’s top-three national touring series. The headline equates her to current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Danica Patrick.
Now, it’s true that in both print and online, writers don’t always pen headlines for their stories; editors do. But the disconnect feels like much more than just an editing oversight. The story then spends the first four paragraphs talking about how Landauer and Patrick are nothing alike.
Here, read the first four paragraphs for yourself, emphasis mine:
Other than being a woman who loves racing fast stock cars, Julia Landauer has virtually nothing in common with Danica Patrick, her trailblazer of sorts. Landauer is 25, Patrick 35. Landauer grew up in New York City, Patrick in far northern Illinois.
Landauer is also a Stanford graduate, former “Survivor” contestant and motivational speaker, focused on topics such as STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and women’s empowerment. Patrick, an ex-IndyCar driver, was marketed as a sex symbol before adopting an image (fortunately) as a fitness, diet and exercise advocate.
“I don’t know that Danica’s NASCAR career is greatly affecting me,” Landauer says. “She has an entirely different brand than I do, which is great for me because it differentiates me. I have also raced through the NASCAR development series, whereas she switched to NASCAR after an IndyCar career.”
She adds, “I think it would be great for NASCAR to show that a female — me — can climb the NASCAR ranks and make it to the top that way.”
Landauer’s looking for sponsorship, the Forbes feature said, just like Patrick has an uncertain future at the Stewart-Haas Racing Cup Series team after the 2017 season. From the Forbes article, emphasis mine:
Three races remain on the Pro Series West schedule, the next on Sept. 30 in Idaho, and a victory would certainly push Landauer’s cause. She became the first woman to win a NASCAR track championship two years ago ...
But capturing a checkered flag would certainly push her cause. In 25 races over two Pro Series West seasons, Landauer has no victories but eight top-five and 19 top-10 finishes. But only one top-five and six top-10 finishes have come this season. Her average finish is 11.2 this year, compared with 6.3 last year.
“Everyone has off years,” she says. “It’s also been noted that I’ve shown great perseverance, which could help my brand!”
After finishing 26th in Sunday’s Monster Energy Cup series race in Darlington, S.C., Patrick languishes in 28th place in the standings, with just one top-10 finish. She has no victories or top-five finishes in her 179-race Cup career. She is determined to stay in the series.
Even after Landauer explicitly said Patrick is an “entirely different brand” and how she’s glad that it differentiates her from Patrick, the writer continued to push his feelings about women in the sport: “But women are still a rarity in racing, so their progress, for better or worse, is linked,” he wrote.
He also continued to compare Patrick and Landauer directly as the article went on, even throwing jabs at Patrick about being “marketed as a sex symbol” before “fortunately” changing her image.
This same author, Dave Caldwell, wrote on Forbes less than a month ago that Patrick has “come to be seen as a driver who is still driving because of sex appeal” and that “acrobatic handstands in bikinis might not be enough to save her from losing her day job.” The headline was “Can Danica Patrick, Photogenic But Mediocre, Turn This Corner?” and entire premise of the story stood on a poolside photo from her personal Instagram.
For the record, there are four full-time male drivers behind her 28th-place position in the Cup Series standings. All of them are still employed and have been in the top levels of the sport for years. Their poolside photos are not keeping them employed.
But, sure, he has a point about female progress being linked. There’s a societal-driven connection between how well women perform in a male-dominated arena. It adds unspeakable pressure, but also the opportunity to help make a path for others.
What it does not do, however, is make all female racers the same. Landauer is as much the “next Danica Patrick” as any other person of any skill level is the “next” mid-pack professional athlete of that same gender and skin color. She’s not, and neither are they.
It isn’t a fair, valid or newsworthy assessment. Like Landauer tried repeatedly to say, it isn’t a real comparison—it’s a forcibly stitched connection between two people with different paths and goals, but similar outward appearances, by a journalist who doesn’t seem to be listening to his own subject.
They’re also facing similar stereotyping, to be fair, as you can tell from these Forbes stories.
Caldwell’s Forbes articles aren’t the only ones doing that, though, and this isn’t meant to pick on him directly. Do a Google search of “the next Danica Patrick” and this is some of what you’ll find, from various outlets:
This isn’t to say that Patrick can’t be a role model for girls and young women interested in racing, but the way women are represented in the media matters. Women need to see that it is possible for them to achieve as themselves and write their own stories, not just becoming the “next” someone. Doing it that way is incredibly reductive.
Writing Patrick off as a mere sex symbol and using her bikini photos as a “newsworthy” critique of her career is also beyond foolish and insulting, which makes the comparison between Landauer and Patrick even more infuriating. Treating Patrick as a sex object and then comparing other female racers to her speaks volumes about how you view female competitors.
Think about it: Patrick wasn’t the first female racer. She isn’t the oldest or the youngest, the toughest, the most diverse, and most importantly, she isn’t the only one. She’s a person, racing a car on a track. Not every other woman who gets in a race car is like her, and she’s not like all of them.
It’s time to stop molding every female racing driver after her and forcing them into the same category, because that’s the lazy thing to do when people look like each other but different from everyone else in a certain segment of society.
Let them be their own people, whether in a race car or out. Let everyone be their own person, even if they don’t look like the people you’re used to seeing in the roles they’re in. We owe everyone that much for getting this far.