Danica Patrick probably would have been best off had she just kept walking.
She didn’t, however, and by now many people have seen the video of Patrick berating a group of NASCAR fans who booed her for not signing autographs at Pocono Raceway. It was an unfortunate look for one of the sport’s most popular drivers, in the midst of the most trying season of her racing career.
Patrick’s outburst went viral quickly, as all things involving her do, both from supporters defending her right to focus on racing and from detractors thrilled to find yet another reason to hate her. It prompted discussion on social media, where Brad Keselowski joined in, and on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s popular podcast, “The Dale Jr. Download.”
Those conversations focused on one key aspect of Patrick’s rant: That signing autographs isn’t part of her job.
That phrasing was pervasive. A poll on USA TODAY’s For The Win even posed the question: “Is signing autographs part of a NASCAR driver’s job?”
It’s a fair question, with roughly 50 percent of respondents as of Wednesday morning saying, “Absolutely.”
There’s only one problem.
Patrick never said signing autographs isn’t part of her job.
What Patrick said was, “My job is not to sign autographs.”
There’s a distinction there, and one that transforms Patrick from being entirely wrong to being at least partly right.
Signing autographs is not Patrick’s job. Her job is to drive a race car, as she told those fans, and “to tell the crew chief what’s going on.” At the time those fans booed her, Patrick was focused on that job. Many drivers — Patrick included — will often break off from their brisk stroll to the garage to interact with fans. In this case, she did not, and this happened to be an instance in which cell phone cameras were rolling.
Signing autographs, however, is part of Patrick’s job. Part of the unspoken contract you agree to when you get paid to drive a race car for lots of money is that you also share the responsibility of promoting the sport. Patrick clearly understands this, since she spent four hours roaming the streets of Boston with schoolchildren on Wednesday to promote the July race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. A Google image search of “danica patrick signs autographs” returns hundreds of pieces of photographic evidence that Patrick frequently signs for fans with a smile on her face.
This is not to say Patrick’s reaction to the fans at Pocono was warranted. That’s a worthy debate being had throughout NASCAR. But in order to have the debate, it has to begin from the right premise, and in at least one key manner, Patrick’s words were being widely misrepresented.
Thumbnail photo via Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports Images