DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In 1997 Tiger Woods became the first African American to win the Masters, an accomplishment that was historic, impactful and, for millions, emotionally moving. It was one of those times when sports shapes society at large.
Sunday, Danica Patrick becomes the first woman to lead the field to the green flag of the Daytona 500 and her goal is to become the first female to ever win a Sprint Cup race of any kind, in this case the sport's most famous and popular event.
Would it compare to what Tiger did 16 years ago?
The answer likely varies from person to person, but in a sports world where the historical importance of an accomplishment is often overstated, even NASCAR fans suffering from Danica fatigue would have a difficult time minimizing it.
Tiger's accomplishment nearly speaks for itself. He wasn't just breaking racial barriers; he was also the youngest golfer to win at Augusta National, a 21-year-old shooting star who simply immolated the field, winning by a record 12 strokes.
This was long before his extra-martial affairs turned him into a Saturday Night Live skit, or even his occasionally surly behavior (on course and off) made him somewhat of a polarizing figure.
At that point he was the All-American kid, part African American, part Asian, the son of a Green Beret, named after a late South Vietnamese colonel who was his father's friend during the war, fresh out of prestigious Stanford University with a huge smile, booming game and excitable antics. He wasn't just upsetting the pecking order of a mostly white sport, but an old, dusty culture.
The venue played a major role, too. Augusta National has long been a monument to Southern power and wealth, a closely held private club that didn't allow a black member until 1990. Augusta isn't just a playground for the white, but for the privileged. You didn't have to have the same skin color as Tiger Woods to get swept up in the symbolism.
Tiger's victory was, at the time, hailed as a major breakthrough and there was the belief it would usher in a new wave of minority golfers on the PGA Tour. That hasn't really materialized, even as he went on to dominate the sport. In the moment, though, this was believed to be beyond huge.
If Danica wins this 55th running of the Daytona 500, will there be similar emotions, pronouncements, even tears of joy?
Perhaps. For Patritck this much is demonstrably true: She would be a woman winning in a sport without gender lines, straight up beating the boys fair and square, which simply isn't reasonably possible in so many other sports.
Women can be great soccer players or basketball players or gymnasts, but they either can't be as great as men or need to have their sport tailored to different skills (or the men tailored to theirs, if you will).
That's just how it is.
Danica is the smallest driver in the race, which may provide some benefits in some spots but negatives in others. Regardless, she needs to maintain the physical strength and mental focus to race around the track under intense heat and pressure. It may not be football, but it is a physical activity.
In Patrick's favor is this: It really doesn't seem impossible, or even unlikely, that a man of any ethnic background could be the best golfer over four days at the Masters. Why wouldn't this be possible? The barriers to a black golfer – or any golfer from any spot on earth – were seen as cultural, not physical.
For women there are thousands of years of genetics and evolution at play, which is why it is a bigger deal for a woman to beat men at the same sporting competition, even if it's the car doing much of the work.
Danica has proven popular with fans, especially female fans, and even most specifically young female fans.
Just this week the young daughters of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards requested their dads take them over to meet Danica. Crew Chief Tony Gibson says he handed out scores of lugnuts as gifts to the little girls crowding around their garage. There are plenty of parents who love seeing how their daughters look at Danica and see possibilities.
"I think you can only lead by example," Patrick said Friday. "And I don't necessarily want my example to be to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy's world. That's not what I'm trying to say. But if you have a talent for something, [don't] be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. [Don't] feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different."
At age 30, and in the public eye since 2005 when she led the Indy 500 late in the race, Patrick doesn't come at this with the nearly clean slate that Tiger did in 1997. She's modeled swimsuits, starred in more Super Bowl commercials than anyone in history and has had plenty of battles on and off the track. She's been heavily promoted yet has only won a single race in Indy Car, which has led many to shrug her off as a marketing creation.
Simply put, lines have been drawn on Danica. There isn't that fresh, widespread fascination anymore that can drive popularity. That has likely tempered some enthusiasm, although showing critics they were wrong might also rally public sentiment.
Meanwhile, just as the backdrop of Augusta National ramped up the significance of Tiger's moment, Daytona may actually lessen Danica's.
The 500 may be the biggest race of the year in NASCAR, but winning one, while coveted, is not as prestigious as taking a Sprint Cup championship, which is competed for over the next 10 months. Moreover, the track, a 2.5-mile superspeedway, can produce both major crashes that innocently take out top competitors and unexpected results.
While this is the most-hyped race of the year, it isn't one that the drivers say best tests their skills.
"To the world, Daytona is the big one," Patrick told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday. "It means a lot to drivers too, don't get me wrong. But there is a lot of luck that goes into this race, a lot of right time at the right place.
"As a driver, if I go out and win Darlington or Martinsville or Bristol – some of the real 'driver tracks' – now those are the big ones."
No one has ever won the Masters and then said they'd rather win the Byron Nelson Championship. Not even Byron Nelson.
Of course, Danica still needs to win. She qualified first, a significant accomplishment, but she's been quick to note that is a testament to the work her crew put in over the winter. It's more about the engineers than the driver.
So now it's on her to do something with a fast car. Few are convinced she can do it. Even starting first, she's 75 to 1 to win on Covers.com, behind 25 other drivers. (Dale Earnhardt Jr., who starts 19th, is the favorite at 8 to 1).
“Can I win?" she asked aloud Friday. "Yeah, absolutely."
If she does, the moment will be monumental, an unquestionable historical achievement and one that will deliver great pride, cheer and hope to millions.
More pride, cheer and hope than Tiger in 1997? Maybe, maybe not. It probably depends on who you are.
But it'll be big enough, that much is certain.
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