Indianapolis 500 Memories: Rookie Danica Patrick Becomes a Star in 2005
Five years ago, the sports world turned its eyes in unison at the 2.5-mile superspeedway known as Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Ind. during a historical moment at "The Brickyard."
Of course, "The Greastest Spectacle in Sports" always gets international attention as one of the oldest and most competitive sporting events, annually held around Memorial Day weekend as a prelude to the dog days of summer.
It's one of the most heralded races known in about any part of the world, be it Caribou, ME or Metro Manila, Philippines. Racing fans know just how much the 500 means to the motorsports world in terms of prestige, history, and the absolute euphoria from winning the greatest auto race.
But this particular running of the 500 was special because of an open-wheel prospect and talent named Danica Patrick, who made her mark in racing history in a matter of 200 laps on May 29, 2005.
Not exactly. Then again, with the way the 5' 2'' racer composed herself in one of the grandest stages in all of motorsports, she made the 500 look as simple as Freddie Mercury belting his high registered notes in any epic Queen song.
Patrick, who was 23-years old when the 2005 Indianapolis 500 was run, became the first woman to lead a lap at the famed track, pacing the field on lap 56.
It would be like Maria Sharapova winning a set against Roger Federer at Wimbledon or Sheryl Swoopes scoring the game-winning shot in an NBA contest. Gender barriers were slowly torn down, as the IndyCar Series' historical event opened the doors for female racers into a sport typically dominated by men.
During a recently-held teleconference at the speedway, Patrick reflected on her Indy experience in 2005, recalling the media hype surrounding her and the team that year:
"The first year I came here, it was kind of crazy, the whole first year, how well I was doing and everything was creating just so much chaos with the media, so much stuff, so many requests coming in."
The feat was quite impressive, given her abilities behind the wheel as well as her rocketship of a car, able to hold its own with drivers like Sam Hornish Jr. and Tony Kanaan leading the way throughout the early stages of the race.
Covering that year's 500 was ABC Sports, with lead commentator Todd Harris delivering this rather polarizing statement:
"Fifty years from now, you will remember where you were when Danica Patrick made not only motorsports history, but she joined the likes of Amelia Earhardt and Sally Ride in a barrier-breaking performance."
While the moment was historical, it certainly didn't do any favors for motorsports critics and fans, who felt that the network hyped up and somewhat favored the rookie racer. Critique aside, it was one of the more memorable happenings in recent Indy 500s.
All race long, Patrick impressed the Indy faithful, piloting her No. 16 Argent Mortgage Honda entry in the top-10, putting herself into contention for an upset victory. With astue coaching from the pits, she ran a respectable race in her rookie effort, making a few errors along the way, when she stalled her car during an early pit stop.
Throughout the 500, contenders fell by the wayside, including the likes of Bruno Junqueria, Scott Dixon, and Sam Hornish Jr. Some of the misfortune that befell pre-race favorites also affected Patrick, who made a bit of a rookie mistake with 46 laps left in the race.
As the field was preparing for a restart, Patrick's car broke loose and did a half-spin in the north south chute. With nowhere to go, Tomas Enge tagged Patrick's nose, damaging both cars as well as the entries of Jeff Bucknum, Patrick Carpentier, and Jacques Lazier.
The Indy faithful held its breath, wondering if any of the drivers involved in the late-race skirmish drove their way out of the crash. Surely but slowly, Patrick drove her wounded machine back to pit road, with her Bobby Rahal/David Letterman-owned team diligently working on the Honda.
Fortunately for Patrick and her No. 16 unit, the damage was repairable, requiring a quick nosecone replacement as well as a four-tire stop and fuel service.
In a matter of three stops, the Roscoe, Ill. native found herself back in the running for the finish, within striking distance of the top-10 in 11th spot.
"There was moment of like, wow, what the heck is going on, as I'm spinning across the track and my left wing gets ripped off," Patrick said in an IMS interview upon reflection of her Indy debut. "I stall in the pits. And I mean you know (the media said) those things were like wow. But then (they said) also, wow, she took the lead."
Chipping away as the race resumed green flag conditions, Patrick hovered around the top-10 along with Bryan Herta, as both racers elected with a fuel mileage race for the rest of the 500. Daring and risky, the two drivers realized it was about their only chance at winning at Indy.
Hoping that the race would play into their hands, Patrick and Herta's strategy paid off when Roger Yasukawa's No. 24 Honda lost an engine with 30 laps left in the event.
Suddenly, the cards played into Patrick and Herta's hands, as both drivers found themselves atop the leaderboard on lap 172. In a matter of minutes and 10-15 laps of racing, both drivers went from nearly irrelevant to sudden shockers, in position to steal a crown jewel spectacle.
And for a while, it appeared as if Patrick was going to capitalize on her moment, leading the field from lap 172 to 185, relinquishing command of the race to Dan Wheldon, whose No. 26 Klein Tools Honda from Andretti Green Racing was a tortoise in qualifying trim but a sporty hare in race conditions.
Fuel mileage became a critical factor down the stretch, as Patrick's team cautioned her to conserve fuel in spite of her premium track position toward the front of the field. Gamble or not, her crew coached her to get the best finish possible while having enough fuel to make the distance, playing a pivotal role in her car losing spots in the final laps.
For a moment, it appeared as if Patrick had one more trick up her sleeve, passing Wheldon for the lead on lap 190 to the delight of the masses at the speedway. Almost like the battle between Rick Mears and Michael Andretti in 1991, Patrick pulled off a stunt that her future team owner used on the illustrious open-wheeler, shooting past the Englishman for a few laps.
Ultimately, fuel conservation was the name of the game for Patrick, whose car had to save just enough to make it to the finish. In the process, she relinquished three positions on the track, falling back to fourth spot as Wheldon led Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta to the checkered flag.
Trailing the trio of Honda-powered cars was Danica Patrick, who finished the race in the same position she started in, placing fourth in a memorable Sunday afternoon. When all was said and done, Patrick established her place in auto racing not only as a tremendous female racer, but a truly competitive driver in today's motorsports scene.
Five years later, her name is oft-mentioned, not only as one of the more appealing and congenial athletes, but an inspiration to various racing fans who witness a driver who gets to live her dreams each day in one of the most competitive forms of sports.
Returning to the scene of one of her grandest moments in her career, Patrick looks to make the 2010 edition even sweeter, with a checkered flag and the Borg Warner Trophy in hand. Perhaps this year will be the one, despite her rough start to the season.
A win at Indy will not only cement her amongst the immortals at Indy, but it may propel her stalled start into a season with great hope and optimism currently stumbling her No. 7 GoDaddy Honda team owned by Andretti Autosport.
Time will tell if she'll capitalize on her success at Indy, but what's certain is each lap she makes at the speedway is one to watch for with history and excitement attached with it.
Race fans may not be saying "Go Daddy!" when the green and black No. 7 Honda zooms by the chutes of the famed speedway, but rather "Go Danica!" as she makes her way around the track from practice sessions in mid-May to the checkered flag on Memorial Day Sunday.
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