Your sexpot American sporting press welcomed Danica Patrick to NASCAR late last week. Barring cataclysm, or a better offer from "Dancing With The Stars," Patrick is expected to announce in a day or two her intention to travel full-time next season with the big roundy-rounder tent-and-revival show. Abandoning the "Indycar Series," whatever that is these days, she'll drive the 2012 Nationwide circuit in a car with fenders owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Her agents, managers, publicists, stylists, sponsors, accountants and fans are no doubt delighted by this, as are the hundreds of selfless board-certified radiologists who camp the Turn 3 infield at Daytona every year offering free mammograms and margaritas to passing women of every shape, size and age on race day.
As Patrick joins this coast-to-coast V-8 burlesque, and is variously praised, criticized, leered at or attacked for her performance on the track and off, it will be worth remembering that while NASCAR presents televised stock-car racing as a mostly family-wholesome "PG"-rated entertainment, the trackside and grandstand facts have always been closer to a hard "R." (Camp a race week at Talladega or Bristol or Darlington if you don't believe it. The Saturday firelight vibe is 75/25 Caligula/Cale Yarborough. If you were expecting a motorhome commercial come to life, or a living sermon on service to community, NASCAR Dad's "Show us your t---!" exuberance can come as kind of a shock.)
But sex and death have long been favorites in the human theater, and racing, along with perhaps bullfighting, deliver the risk and hope of both in their purest form.
Thus Patrick's arrival, dragging behind her a series of soft-core commercials and unzipped magazine layouts, is in keeping with auto racing's long and widely known history of women as objects, as firecracker beauty queens and Hooter's girls and hood ornaments.
Less well known is the history of women in racing as winning drivers and hot shoes on their own terms. Louise Smith and Sara Christian and Janet Guthrie in NASCAR, for example, back all the way to Hellé Nice and Violette Morris ("Hyena of the Gestapo"!) at the very founding of the sport. Auto racing is, after all, an entirely level playing field for men and women, at least in theory, and the only sporting enterprise in which they compete on equal footing. There is no need of a separate league for women's racing. Just ask Shirley Muldowney.
Whether Danica Patrick might have been a famous racer based on results alone can now never be known. She has done what she felt she had to do to generate sponsorship money -- a must for men or women in this breathtakingly expensive sport -- and what postmodern celebrity demanded of her. In fact, whether this move to the NASCAR medicine show represents a sharpening of her on-track ambitions or the utter abandonment of them remains to be seen. It's likely a much bigger paycheck by the time she's done. That she'll be driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's great melancholy matinee idol these past 10 years, makes a kind of sad and perfect sense, too, as both are prized not so much for winning but for the raw wattage of their star power.
As a practical matter, that Patrick will arrive at Martinsville or Dover or Atlanta more famous than other NASCAR women of the past decade such as Shawna Robinson or Erin Crocker or Chrissy Wallace or Jennifer Jo Cobb means nothing. She also arrives more famous than most of the men in the field. It illustrates only that her strategy of "owning" her sexuality as a public figure and benefiting from its sale has so far been a shrewd one. But one (graduate) school of thought has it that all sex ever sells is more sex, and that applied Third-Wave Feminism of that kind boomerangs with the very audience whose consciousness it is you're indirectly trying to raise or simply neutralize. To the hardcore knucklehead, it's just more pretty girls on the hood of a car in their underwear.
So will Danica Patrick's full-time move into NASCAR be a triumph for gender equity and fairness? Or just another blow struck on behalf of cleavage and wall-to-wall American marketing? I suspect that like the racing itself, we'll circle these questions for some number of hours or years and arrive right back where we started.
That said, it is terribly unfair of us to ask Ms. Patrick to be or to become a social or cultural crusader. We almost never ask the same of men. She is her own woman, and that she be asked to bear forward dreams or ambitions other than her own is itself sexist. "Women's rights," whatever we construe them to be, would best be served by asking nothing more or less of her than we ask of Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon.
So perhaps the real sadness here is not that Danica Patrick sells herself as a sex object, but that our culture still urges her to do so; not that she sells out her truest self, but that we insist upon the selling out as a condition of her continued employment.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.