Somewhere lost amid all of the hype, hoopla and subsequent disappointment surrounding Danica Patrick at Daytona, people failed to notice there was another woman making her Nationwide debut.
Last Saturday, 19-year-old Johanna Long -- quietly -- became the youngest woman in history to drive in the Nationwide Series. And while Patrick's pole position and untimely wreck in the Drive4COPD 300 were splashed across the national headlines, Long raced to a respectable 21st-place finish in a wild, crash-marred Daytona thriller.
Long did not race in Phoenix and is in 24th place in the Nationwide point standings. After finishing 21st in the Bashas' Supermarkets 200, Patrick is 21st.
This isn't a "there are better female drivers than Patrick" story. Because that's the beauty of Long. Although Patrick is featured on "SportsCenter" every time she opens a door (literally and figuratively) for being a female race car driver, Long has the luxury of viewing herself as a race car driver first and foremost. Perhaps it's partially because of Patrick's success or because of her age, but Long doesn't see her gender as a hindrance or an advantage. It's just who she is, a simple fact of nature.
"Growing up around racing, I always just wanted to be a driver out there," she said. "I never thought of myself as a female driver."
NASCAR might seem like an unlikely place for female empowerment. To some, it's a lingering symbol of the good ol' boys network. NASCAR might be the last place one would expect to be at the center of a cultural change.
However, racing is unique in that women can compete on a level playing field with men because it removes the physical differences between the sexes.
Long comes from a racing family. Donald Long, Johanna's father, brought his daughters to the track when he raced in the now-defunct All-Pro Series. Hers wasn't a conscious decision to start racing; the sport was in her blood. Something she was born into, no different from a last name. Racing is who she is. When asked about her outside interests or how she spends her downtime, the answer is simple.
"I spend it at the racetrack," she said. "I've been around it since I was 8 years old. I'll just go to a race and watch. That's what I like to do."
After making her name driving late models, Long spent the past two seasons running a partial schedule in the Camping World Truck Series. As the 2011 schedule came to a close, she found herself in the same position as many of her peers -- without a guaranteed ride and facing an uncertain future.
Then, in December, a meeting with Mary Louise Miller resulted in a deal with ML Motorsports and funding for a 21-race season in the Nationwide Series.
For casual race fans, the word sponsorship conjures up images of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mountain Dew commercials or Patrick in a GoDaddy.com ad. But for the typical driver, sponsorship is both a beloved and dreaded term. A single sponsorship can be the difference between racing and sitting at home. It's everything. It's a matter of survival in the sport. Although the Nationwide schedule is 33 races, Long will race in only 21 because of a lack of funds. She would love to be in every race but needs more sponsors.
She's a typical driver who happens to be female. Not the other way around. Like many of her male counterparts, she's struggling to fund her ambition.
The media will surely put extra pressure on her as her star continues to grow because of her gender, asking her questions about what it means to be a woman in the sport or if she views herself as a role model for the next generation of women in racing. But the truth is, she doesn't. She sounds like every other young driver. Just grateful for an opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream.
"There's no real added pressure," she said. "I don't view myself as any different than anyone else. Growing up I admired every driver, because they got to do what I wanted to do."
Contrary to what some might think, there is no special camaraderie among female NASCAR drivers. Long is appreciative of Patrick's success because of what it does for other women drivers, but doesn't view her any differently than the rest of her peers. In the garage they're all wearing the same firesuit, with the same goals as everyone else.
Long is remarkably unconcerned with the external factors pushed on some of her female predecessors. Her focus remains on earning as many top-15 finishes as she can and securing sponsorships.
She exudes a youthful optimism and a warm quality that instantly puts those around her at ease. That should make her a sponsor's dream. Like the most seasoned of veterans who have been racing for longer than she's been alive, Long gave polished answers about some of the choices Patrick has made with her sponsorships, refusing to criticize or judge. She said without hesitation, "Everybody's looking for a sponsor. And when you get that, it's really good."
While the world continues its collective fascination of all things Patrick, it's important to recognize and appreciate the path she is paving for female athletes. But it's perhaps even more important to recognize those following her who might be noticed not for who they are, but what they are accomplishing.