Those 'Different' Drivers
Editor's Notebook, June 2002
I've been thinking about a very brief conversation that took place just before the running of this year's Indianapolis 500. It has deep meaning and it has no meaning at all.
First, a few observations.
Sarah Fisher is the third woman ever to start the 500. George Mack, this year, was the second African-American to start the 500. This is Fisher's third 500 in a row. This is Mack's first 500. Neither was a factor on the race track, probably because neither had, on that day, competitive equipment. There were significant differences, however, in how each was treated by the media and how each responded.
|issues of gender...|
On television, in newspapers, and in racing magazines, leading up to the running of the 500, Fisher's gender was an interesting 'hook' for a story. She was touted as the fastest woman ever to race at Indy. There were stories of the difficulty she had finding sponsorship. She was interviewed and profiled with the same intensity as the great names in racing. Through it all, she sidestepped issues of gender. She wanted only to be treated like all the other race car drivers.
Mack's racial background was never mentioned in stories leading up to the 500, at least as far as I remember. He was treated as just another middle of the pack driver. But, as race time approached, the television announcers were quickly asking the non-celebrity racers for comments. When asked how he felt about being in the Indy 500, Mack said something like, "Look at all the people. I don't know if they want to spit on me or cheer me on. I'm just looking forward to drinking the milk, chocolate milk."
Did Mack's comment have any deep meaning we should take away with us? Probably not. But I thought about it all during the race anyway.
There is racism in America and in the world. (I hope that doesn't come as a shock to anyone.) There is also gender bias in America and in the world. (More lack of shock, I hope.) Each of us deals with these facts in ways that seem appropriate to us.
|highlight or ignore...|
Reporters felt it was appropriate to highlight Fisher's difference from the other drivers. Fisher decided to ignore that difference. Reporters felt it was appropriate to ignore Mack's difference from the other drivers. Mack decided to highlight that difference.
I truly don't believe one was the right way of handling the situation and the other was the wrong way. Neither Fisher nor Mack should be made to carry the aspirations and the reputations of entire classes of people on their shoulders. They should not be burdened by a factor that is meaningless to their racing ability.
Each should, however, be free to take advantage of their differences if they can. God knows they have been penalized for those differences often enough.
Downforce that creates grip in the corners also creates drag on the straights. Do you trim out your career, like Fisher is doing, and try to reduce the drag of your gender difference? Or do you put pressure on your career, like Mack seems to be doing, using your racial difference to increase your grip on your base?
I don't know. I do know, however, that for the foreseeable future Fisher and other women drivers and Mack and other African-American drivers will be seen as those 'different' guys at the track. Knowing when and how to use that difference effectively might lead them to ultimate success.