by Dan Smith
As we gear up for another big crowd to arrive in Volusia County for the running of the summer race at Daytona International Speedway, we are reminded of the dangers in the sport. On June 12, journeyman driver Jason Leffler was killed on a dirt track in New Jersey.
Jason was only 37 years old. Although major success had eluded him in the Sprint Cup circuit, he would run anyplace, anytime and was a popular member of the racing community. Our thoughts are with Jason's family at this sad time.
In more upbeat racing news, Danica Patrick will be at the wheel of her Chevy when the 43 cars roll off for the 400 mile race. Danica is not the first woman to run NASCAR, but she is easily the most successful. This past February she set the stock car world on its ear when she went out and won the pole for the Daytona 500. Ms. Patrick joined an elite group of drivers when she turned the fastest qualifying lap. Many a driver has toiled behind the wheel an entire career without ever winning a Daytona pole. She then went on to finish eighth in NASCAR's biggest show.
As soon as it was announced that she would drive in Sprint Cup, a lot of press and attention came her way.
Terminally cute, Danica has taken it all in stride proving she has what it takes to run with the big boys. This season as I watch the races, it occurs to me the other drivers are not quite sure just what to do with her. If they put her into the wall, they may be accused of being misogynists or worse. The few times she has had to mix it up on the track, she has given a good account of herself. Right away Danica let the good ole boys know she will not be a pushover. I like it!
Actually NASCAR wins big points for putting her on the track. Since the early 1980s stock car racing has been working to challenge the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball as the most watched American sport. With Danica in the mix, NASCAR has become the only one of the big sports to have a woman competing equally with the men. That is a major boost for women everywhere.
All of the little girls who watch her doing battle in a male dominated sport can rightfully dream of competing where and when they choose. Of course, she is still in a learning process, but has shown a lot of promise.
After the 500 she settled into finishing near the middle of the pack, but if that does not impress you, remember that means around 20 professional male drivers are behind her. I am sure she will make her way to the front. She has the talent and certainly has the audacity. I can't wait until the day when she has to clip someone like Kyle Bush in the rear quarter panel. Kyle is one of the more volatile drivers in Sprint Cup racing and I know when Danica finally bumps him out of the way and drives past a huge cheer will erupt from the crowd. I will be one of those cheering.
For sure stock car racing has come a long way since the days when the fastest guys at the track also hauled moonshine in their spare time. Early drivers were tough, greasy, country boys who asked for and gave no quarter. Fellows like Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and David Pearson, all gained their racing chops battling on out-of-the-way southern dirt tracks. Now a little girl from Illinois has joined the fun and racing will never be the same. Give 'em hell, Danica!
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned." Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.