Risk and the Indianapolis 500

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick

Last Sunday, IndyCar held its most popular annual US event, the Indianapolis 500. The 92nd running of the event, actually.

That got me thinking about risk, and wondering whether risk-taking behavior is culturally determined.

After considering it for most of the week, I vote yes. I think an individual’s preference toward risk is highly influenced by both societal norms about gender and cultural views that either celebrate or discourage risk.

Of the 36 drivers who qualified for the 92nd Indy 500, two are women. Two. One is Danica Patrick, probably the driver best known by non-Indy car fans, who one columnist recently described as a “5ft 2in, 100lb bundle of marketing gold.” What most people know about her is that she is attractive and has an excellent public relations firm. The other woman who qualified is 27-year-old Sarah Fisher. She’s not nearly as well known or as well marketed as Danica Patrick, but she is also young and attractive and has recently received coverage for those two qualities. Few non-Indy fans know anything about the records or racing history of either woman.

Why don’t more women race Indy cars? My theory on that is pretty straightforward. I believe society discourages risk-taking behavior in women. Obviously, Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick are exceptions, but as a whole, we remain steered toward nurturing and care giving, which tends to avoid putting our lives on the line for thrill. Or even trophies.

The other thing that stands out to me about the Indy 500 is the differential between the number of Brazilians who qualify and the number of Japanese who qualify.

Yep, I know it’s a stereotype, but in general, Brazilians have a reputation for adventure. Brazilian cultures celebrate men who are, well, masculine. They are dangerous daredevils with cocky attitudes and ‘lots of testosterone.

Japanese culture, on the other hand, tends to applaud men who follow rules, accept responsibility, and behave appropriately. There are strict codes of behavior that adults rarely breach. Adult men provide for their families and act honorably.

Back to the Indy 500. There were five Brazilian drivers who qualified for the race. There was one Japanese driver. True, Brazil has a larger population than Japan – Brazil has about 188,078,227 people while Japan has a mere 127,493,611 – but that doesn’t seem to explain the discrepancy.

Brazilians somehow seem designed to race really, really fast cars. Helio Castroneves, currently number two in the Indy Car rankings, has been one of People’s Most Beautiful and is frequently on magazine covers. He looks like the poster boy for racing, for drafting cars at 200 miles per hour, and darting into miniscule gaps between cars.

By the way, there were 11 US drivers in the race. Of those 11, two were from Indiana, two were from Ohio, and three were from California. The other US drivers were from Texas, Illinois, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Pennsylvania (but that’s the Andretti family, probably the most European Pennsylvanian’s I know about), Connecticut, and Colorado.

I realize this is far from a definitive study, based on purely empirical data and a very small sample. But it’s still interesting to think about. Is love of risk encouraged by society, specific to gender and country of origin? Despite the lack of real evidence, I still think it is. It seems to me some cultures encourage thrill-seeking by the male members of the population more than others.

And hey, if nothing else, writing about Indy car drivers lets us say “Helio Castroneves,” which is pretty fun. Looking at him isn’t so bad, either.

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.