A sign of progress in the motorsports world of NASCAR came last week when Danica Patrick won the pole for today's Daytona 500 and, in addition to getting her name immediately etched in the record books, also was awarded the pole winner trophy which she got to take home with her.
The same was not the case 49 years ago when African-American driver Wendell Scott won a NASCAR Grand National event in Jacksonville Florida. The Grand National division is the equivalent of today's Sprint Cup division in which Patrick is competing.
Scott raced for years on the short tracks around the south and his hometown of Danville, Va. There, and later when he made his way to the NASCAR Grand National division, Scott had to endure the prejudices of the day. Fans yelling racial slurs. Drivers intentionally wrecking him because, as an African-American, he didn't belong in the all-white male dominated sport of stock car racing.
When he beat Richard Petty to the checkered flag on the one-mile dirt track at Speedway Park NASCAR officials didn't award Scott the trophy. There was no visit to victory lane.
Officials awarded the win to second place driver Buck Baker. Within hours NASCAR officials recognized their error, but it would be two years before Scott would be officially awarded the win. In 2010, 20 years after his death, his family finally received the winner's trophy.
Jump ahead to 2013 and we have Patrick immediately receiving her pole-winning trophy and getting her name etched in the record books. NASCAR has indeed come far, right?
Well, if you don't take into consideration the fact that in Saturday night's Craftsman Truck Series race all eyes were on Darrell Wallace Jr., driver of the Kyle Bush Motorsports entry and only the fourth African-American driver to have a full-time ride in one of NASCAR's top three series. In four Nationwide Series races last year Wallace posted three top 10 finishes. His lowest finish was 12th. Those accomplishments, however, often are lost in discussions about him which focus more on the race of the driver instead of the driver in the race.
Wallace is part of the sport's drive for diversity program, which aims to open doors for women and minorities in a sport which has always been dominated by white males.
But like Patrick, his name always comes with that asterisk. His accomplishments aren't noted simply because he is a good driver. No, his accomplishments always are tagged with the fact that he is an African-American driver, just as Patrick is always tagged as a woman driver.
NASCAR isn't alone in this tagging. In fact, as a society we love to attach some little addendum to people's accomplishments, as if race, sex or some other unrelated trait is somehow relevant to the success or failure of the person.
Sally Ride will always be known as the first female astronaut.
Sandra Day O'Connor will always have the phrase first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court attached to her name.
Thurgood Marshall will always be known as the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court.
It is good that we pause to celebrate the times when old barriers and antiquated thinking fall to the wayside. The pioneers deserve recognition for their hard work in blazing a trail or opening previously closed doors, and their accomplishments can inspire future generations to embrace the knowledge that race, sex or other unrelated factors should have no bearing on a person's ability to succeed in our country.
At the same time, we have to be careful about defining these pioneers based solely on their success at breaking down long-established barriers. Doing so almost makes it seem like they accomplished their feat despite their race, sex or other man-made barrier.
More people likely are going to tune in to the Daytona 500 today just to see how the first woman to sit on the pole for the race will do. Regardless of the outcome, we can do Patrick, and the sport, a huge favor by judging her performance as a driver, not as a woman driver.