Small nimble mammals 1, dinosaurs 0

Two weeks ago, Danica Patrick made history by being the first female driver in the Indy 500 to come in fourth — and to lead the race for a significant number of laps. It wasn’t a fluke: Patrick’s a rookie, but she’d recently been posting record speeds. However, since racing is not merely a guy sport but — since it involves ultrafast cars — a particularly testosterone-soaked guy sport, the checkered flag had barely finished waving before Patrick’s losing competitors began complaining that she’d had an unfair advantage.

Why? Because she only weighs 100 pounds — which means that her car is lighter than all her male competitors, who weigh significantly more. The winner of the Indy 500, Tony Kanaan, weighs almost 50 pounds more. The Indy 500 rules require that each car weigh at least 1,525 pounds, but that’s without the driver inside, and the drivers have no weight restrictions at all. Thus, a smaller driver like Patrick can arguably move faster and conserve more gas. As one competitor calculated, her lighter weight could give her an edge of 0.8 of a mile in an hour.

But the biggest complaints came from racer Robby Gordon:

“The lighter the car, the faster it goes,” Gordon said. “Do the math. Put her in the car at her weight, then put me or Tony Stewart in the car at 200 pounds and our car is at least 100 pounds heavier. I won’t race against her until the IRL does something to take that advantage away.”

It’s a fascinating moment. In virtually every other major, highly-televised sport, the opposite logic obtains — and athletes have been rewarded for being more and more freakishly huge. The NBA is, for all intents and purposes, no longer a sport but a sort of intriguing genetic contest to see which team can acquire the most ludicrously enormous giant. Hell, even baseball is being infected with this disease, and there’s really no point talking about football, which has long degenerated into nothing more than two teams slingshotting refrigerators into one another across an empty field. What in god’s name does this have to do with actual striving, competition, skill — and, well, sport? Major league games have basically been reduced to mere physics experiments, with essentially predetermined results: Calculate the mass, calculate the velocity, there’s your result.

Danica Patrick freaks many people out because the idea of someone excelling at a sport because they’re smaller is so very, very freaky. It violates our idea of what a winner ought to look like. We don’t merely want someone to excel — we want winners to be a certain type: A grotesquely goliath victor prancing through the end-zone with the sort of mincing, self-glorying idiocy of today’s top major-league figures.

Holy god am I letting my geek flag fly here today. Can you tell who was the nerd that hated gym class?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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