Thursday, June 13, 2013

An Open Letter to Danica Patrick, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Annabeth Barnes, and Many Others

Father's Day may be this weekend, but I received a great Father's Day gift a few days early. I was chatting with my five year old daughter History the other day about what she would like to be when she grows up.

"Daddy," she said.

"Yes."

"I think I'd like to be a race car driver when I grow up."

I smiled down at her with fantasies of her driving aggressively at 180+ mph flashing through my mind - alternating with random visuals of motor sport crashes - and said, "What kind of race car do you want to drive? Do you want to drive a car like Francesco Bernoulli or a car like Lightning McQueen?"


Her answer was swift and unsurprising, "Lightning McQueen!"

It wasn't unsurprising because Jody and I are regular viewers of NASCAR, we aren't. Ever since the twins - History and Mystery - were born, we've been devoted followers of Formula 1 racing. In the early days of the twins' lives when Jody and I were up at seemingly random times for late night feedings, we found something magical on the television. That something magical was Formula 1. Depending on where the race happened to be in a given week, the practice, qualifying, and race might be on at 2am or 3am. This was perfect for late night feeding. And I swear that the sound of the high RPM, high speed engines of those open wheel marvels was one of the reasons we were able to get the girls back to sleep at night. Nothing against NASCAR, but those drivers tend to race at reasonable hours US time.

It was unsurprising because History and Mystery love the Disney movie CARS. They love Lightning McQueen, Mater, and Sally - but they have a special place for Lightning.

Yes, they have Lightning McQueen stuffed pillows to sleep with.

After my imagination stopped flickering between excitement and panic, History asked me a question.

"Daddy? Can girls race cars?" she said.

"Yes!" I answered quickly - a slew of names came to mind, starting with Shirley Muldowney
and including many others.

My answer wasn't enough to steer her away from her own observations though.

"Daddy? Why don't I ever see any girl drivers then?" she asked.

At that moment, I became one of the world's biggest Danica Patrick, Jennifer Jo Cobb, and Annabeth Barnes fans - and I'll be a fan for life. I knew all of their names already. Danica and Jennifer are known to most motorsport fans, and Danica is one of the biggest names in sports period. And I knew Annabeth Barnes name from the motorsport documentary RACING DREAMS.

I became a life long fan because with one single action, I was able to dispel all of the powerful doubt and skepticism that a 5 year old imagination can muster. My daughter had never seen a woman race and she was starting to believe that they weren't allowed to, regardless of what her dad said. With a wave of my hand - we had been looking at a Disney Princess ebook on my iPad - I brought up Danica Patrick's homepage. Clio's eyes widened with awe, I could hear her gasp with excitement.

"Is that her race car?" she asked. She was pointing at the car Danica was standing next to.

"Yes," I answered and as I did so, the slideshow scrolled to show Danica behind the wheel. I proceeded to talk with History about Danica, Jennifer, and Annabeth and visited each of their websites, and a couple more as well (like Katherine Legge).

It was a wonderful moment, and a great early Father's Day gift.

I don't know if History will continue to want to be a race car driver when she grows up. People's dream jobs do change as they grow up. But I do know that after History went to her room for her nap, I began looking up local Kart circuits, availability, and costs. If she has an interest, I will work to provide her the opportunity. I would have done so whether there were currently any women in motorsport, or whether there ever had been, but I am so thankful that there were so many examples I could show my daughter. I have no idea how hard it would have been to fight against the preconceptions my daughter was building up from her own observations, if there weren't footsteps to follow. 

I am glad there were.

So, I'd just like to take the time to thank every woman currently racing in motor sport for doing what they love. My daughter may never join you in the ranks, but you made her dream a believable one and I first hand saw how important that was to her. I have always rooted for drivers like Danica and Annabeth, but it had always been in an abstract "American's love the underdog" kind of way. I am now a devoted fan of any woman brave enough to sit behind the wheel, because you are physical proof of a child's dream.
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