Rookie Danica Patrick is the lightest driver in the IRL but she will be carrying the weight of history on her shoulders.
The 23-year-old Danica Patrick not only has been the story of the year for this year’s Indy 500, she probably is the story of the decade at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
If she becomes the first woman to win the world’s most prestigious race, Danica Patrick will become a story for the ages.
“There is nothing I want to do more than to win this race,” Patrick said. “I will do what it takes. I will be fair but I will do what it takes. Let’s just win this one first. Let’s just do it. I expect to win this race if I and the team get everything right.”
Lyn St. James competed in seven Indy 500s from 1992-97 and returned in 2000. Her best finish was 11th in her rookie season. Sarah Fisher ran in five Indy 500s, but her best result was 21st last year.
Patrick, however, may be the first female driver with a legitimate chance of winning at Indy despite never having competed in a race over 300 miles. She has been the fastest driver all month at the 2 1/2-mile oval, but a bobble on her first lap in qualifications cost her the pole on May 15, 2005.
Through it all, she has maintained a self-confidence that borders on cockiness with the media. She just wants to be Danica.
“This could be twisted any kind of way, but I came here to drive and I just want to be Danica,” Patrick said. “That includes different styles of clothes and different styles of photos, different ways of dealing with the media and the fans. I’ve never been anything but true to myself and my personality and the way I handle things. If I’m mad, I’ll tell you and let you know. I just want to be a race car driver but this is the stuff that comes with it.
“You have to understand this is what fuels the car and this is what the sponsors need to see and need to hear so I embrace it and try to get it done.”
Patrick certainly has attracted a different style of media. Following her story Danica Patrick SI Swimsuit video She's one hot Indy car driver!
One of the leading women’s magazines in the world, Glamour, sees Patrick as the complete package for a female athlete.
“Glamour is a magazine where they try to inspire women and that is what Danica is - an inspiration to all women. “ Glamour inspires young women, who will get into karting and grow up and drive themselves. I think it’s clear Danica has proven to be a racer. She is beautiful and likes to get her nails done and wear high heels and she is proving it’s not exclusive.”
That is a responsibility that Patrick is willing to grasp—to become a true pioneer in the sport.
“I think the public and sports fans in general need role models, people to cheer for and they need great stories,” Patrick said. “They need ways to connect with their children. I’ve heard great stories about the fathers coming with their little girls because all of a sudden their little girl has someone to root for and they want to go to the race track now.
“I think that’s really cool.”
Rival team owner Roger Penske said the difference in Patrick’s weight of 105 pounds to 165-pound Sam Hornish Jr. can equate to 0.8 miles per hour in her advantage.
“I’ve heard Roger Penske talk about me and Rick Mears say nice things about me and that makes me feel good, but I have to try to stay humble,” Patrick said. “Buddy Rice won last year’s race and he was the heaviest in the field so I don’t think my weight will make the difference.”
The real weighty issue for Patrick has been the weight of attention and the constant spotlight surrounding her.
“I’ve always been in the spotlight to some extent depending on who I’m driving against,” Patrick said. “I’m curious how many times somebody can get an interview from me and get something new.
“I didn’t come here to become famous. I didn’t come here to be idolized. I’d try the same amount whether no one was watching or everyone was watching.”
Patrick takes pride in the fact she is mature beyond her years. Part of that maturity comes from living in Europe for three years and racing in Formula Fords. She finished second in the 2000 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in England—the highest finish by an American in that event.
Danica Patrick began her career in go-karts in 1992 and joined the World Karting Association in 1993. She raced against two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. in a karting career that continued through 1997. She moved to Europe in 1998 in the Formula Vauxhall Winter Series.
“I’m fairly mature for my age,” Patrick said. “I might only be turning 23 but I remember when I would come back from England every six months and my parents would tell me, ‘You have grown up so much, it’s amazing what happens to you in six months.’ I lived by myself for a while and I grew up very young.
“Through my life, I’ve been forced to mature and learn the language of an adult from a really young age because you have to communicate with much older people, very professional people, very important people and it’s become habit for me.”
Patrick stands just 5-2, but her trademark is a powerful handshake that leaves men twice her size surprised with her grip.
“Nobody likes a weak handshake,” Patrick said. “My dad always told me to shake someone’s hand like you mean it—not just touching them.”
Patrick also is secure in her ability as a race driver. She was featured in a magazine when she competed in the Toyota Atlantic Series, in which she finished third in the point standings last year with a best finish of second at Portland.
For now, she doesn’t mind being referred to as a “female race driver.”
“I am a female race driver—it’s a fact,” Patrick said. “I think when they watch the races and especially as time goes on and I learn and get used to things it will be more exciting to them because they do go into the races with that kind of attitude that there is a girl out there and all of a sudden I’m kicking butt, that’s cool. That is going to really bring fans back again. It doesn’t matter to me. Whatever sells tickets and gets people to watch it.
“I don’t need to reach the next level and get any more magazine articles. I just need to go fast. I need to do well.”
Patrick wants to create more interest in the IRL on the race track—not in magazine spreads. And, she’d rather be compared to Sam Hornish Jr. and Buddy Rice as opposed to Fisher, St. James and Guthrie.
“I’ve only been racing Indy cars for a few races, so I figure this will be the topic of conversation for a while,” Patrick said. “There are a lot of people who don’t know who I am. Even though I’ve been racing for 14 years, there are a lot of people who have been racing for a long time.
“A niche is a niche.”
There are some pretty high expectations at Rahal Letterman Racing. Team owner Bobby Rahal won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 as a driver. Patrick’s teammate, Buddy Rice, took the checkered flag here last year.
Does that kind of success provide extra motivation to Patrick?
“I think I’m motivated enough,” Patrick said. “But it’s almost comforting because you know you are on a team with that kind of potential. I’m grateful and happy that I drive for a team that gives me the ability. And, I want this series to be so kick butt that all of the sudden NASCAR is going, ‘Huh?’ But it will take a lot of great stories, and mine is definitely different.
“It’s time that a woman wins the Indianapolis 500. … It’s time.”
By Bruce Martin
SportsTicker Contributing Editor
Interview can be viewed on www.danicapatrick.nl