It was the biggest, baddest and fastest golf cart at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a piece of sleek black machinery that was the envy of every driver a few days away from racing in the Indy 500. Its owner, a 5'2'', 100-pound woman, took immense pride in knowing she could outrun anyone in the drivers' lot who challenged her to a race.
"Hold on," she tells me as she slides the key into the ignition on a cool spring evening. "This baby can fly. I promise you it's faster than any other cart out here. Because hey, man, I always need to be the fastest."
And we were off, roaring into the vast speedway infield. This was in May 2008, and from behind the wheel Danica Patrick smiled like she was in speed nirvana, the confident portrait of a woman who knew she had made it in a "man's sport."
She cruised through the darkness, passing RVs and campfires that glowed and flickered in the Midwestern night. Fans spotted her and desperately tried to flag her down.
A little girl cried at the sight of Danica. One man shouted a wedding proposal; another held up a copy of Sports Illustrated with Danica on the cover. A different fan joyously uttered how much he loved her roles in those racy GoDaddy Super Bowl commercials. Yes, at this moment nine years ago, Danica Patrick was perhaps the most famous female athlete in America.
Danica kept mashing the gas, rumbling past fans, cruising into a future that appeared to be filled with so much promise. Just three months earlier, in a race in Japan, she became the first woman in IndyCar history to take a checkered flag.
Now spin the clock forward. There she is last Saturday afternoon in the Blue Ridge foothills, lounging in her million-dollar motor coach parked outside of Martinsville (Virginia) Speedway, the site of the NASCAR race 24 hours away. Wearing a T-shirt and jeans, an apple with almond butter freshly in her stomach, the 35-year-old Patrick acknowledges the obvious: Her racing career may be over in a few weeks.
"I never have any regrets," she says. "I wish I could have won more often, but so much in racing is out of your control. If this is the end, a certain portion of me has to die. A part of my identity will go away. But you have to let go of things. There's sadness, but there's also excitement. My future could be better than I can even envision."
On results alone, Patrick's racing resume isn't exactly the stuff of a Hall of Famer. In seven years in IndyCar, she had one win and two memorable top-five finishes in the Indy 500. And in the last six years in NASCAR's highest series, she's started 187 races and has zero victories, seven top-10 finishes and one pole, which she captured for the 2013 Daytona 500. In that race, she became the first woman to lead a lap under the green flag in the 500 and finished eighth.
But the allure of Patrick was never solely about her racing ability; it was also the fact that this woman dared to enter the good ol' boy world of racing in the first place, a feminist in the mold of a Billie Jean King who became a hero to millions of young girls across the country.
"If Danica never wins a race, I still think she'll be remembered as a huge success because she's broken so many barriers and inspired so many people," Tony Stewart told me a few years ago. "You look at her and think there is no way she can mix it up with the guys. But trust me, out on the track, she's as brave as any driver out there."
It's also worth remembering—and yet too often forgotten—that Patrick's road to the top levels of racing was anything but easy. Her father, T.J. Patrick, bought Danica a go-kart when she was nine and set up a makeshift oval track in the parking lot of the commercial glass business he owned in Rockford, Illinois.
"Danica just couldn't wait to start racing," T.J. says. "I made a rule that if she was going to do this, she had to learn something every time she went to the track. She had to learn how to tune her own carburetor and understand things like when her tires were going bad, what lines she needed to take and when she needed to brake. She caught on quick."
She was aggressive from the start, displaying elite hand-eye-foot coordination and setting records for her age at local tracks such as Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wisconsin. At 16 she quit high school and moved to England to compete in the Formula Vauxhall Series. She was the only woman, young or otherwise, on the circuit—her rival drivers could be cruel to her both on the track and off—and she spent many nights crying to her parents over the phone, wanting to come home.
She returned to the States in the summer of 2001, believing her racing career could be over. While attending an IndyCar event with her dad at Milwaukee in June '02, she approached owner Bobby Rahal in the garage and begged him for a chance. Rahal shocked his team by offering her a contract. Three years later, driving for Rahal, she finished fourth in the Indy 500—the best finish ever by a female driver in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing—and landed on the cover of SI.
"That was the moment everything changed for me," Patrick says. "Literally overnight, my life moved in an entirely different direction."
Indeed, in the span of a few hours, she became marketing gold, the rare race car driver with crossover appeal. Over the next decade she would earn tens of millions of dollars in endorsements. She would appear in SI's swimsuit issue, host several TV shows on Spike TV, voice herself on The Simpsons and appear in an episode of CSI: NY. Out of the car, she had the highest Q rating of any driver in America without the last name Earnhardt.
Still, rival drivers would tell you—when safely in the land of not-for-attribution—that Danica was all style and no substance. Some even cracked sexist jokes about her aggressiveness leading to wrecks, saying that it must be that time of the month for her.
"It hasn't been easy for Danica because she's had do things that no one else has done," Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of Patrick's mentors, told me a few years ago. "There have been times when she wasn't treated well at all, and it made me sick."
Patrick moved to NASCAR in 2012. In IndyCar her career average finish had been an impressive 10.6, but she struggled to adjust to the bulkier, heavier stock cars. She usually performed her best at NASCAR's biggest and fastest tracks—Daytona and Talladega—because if she had one specialty, it was piloting race cars at high speed.
But Patrick was typically a back-of-the-pack driver in NASCAR. This season, for instance, her average finish in 33 starts has been 23.6. On September 12, Stewart-Haas Racing, the team she had been driving for since 2013, announced that her contract wouldn't be renewed for next season. Patrick wanted to keep racing, but only if a top-level team offered her a ride. The call still hasn't come.
Yet even if Patrick isn't behind the wheel next year, she'll still have a very public presence. She's dabbled in broadcasting, twice serving as a color commentator for Fox. She's also developed a massive following on Instagram, where she posts yoga routines, health-conscious recipes and fitness workouts. The business of being Danica Patrick will remain good.
"I'm going to have to take a moment to think about all that I've done," says Patrick, who finished 17th on Sunday at Martinsville. "It's all gone by so fast."
The last race of the 2017 NASCAR season is Nov. 19 in Homestead, Florida. This is when the most popular driver in the history of stock car racing, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will take the last laps of his career. The cameras will be trained squarely on him.
Patrick likely will be exiting the racing stage as well that afternoon. You can be sure of one thing: There will be dozens and dozens of little girls—and grown women—among the other fans screaming her name and pleading for her autograph as she strides toward her No. 10 Ford on pit road one final time.
For posterity, let that be the lasting image of Danica Patrick, a trailblazer unlike any other in American motorsports.
Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of eight books, most recently The Quarterback Whisperer. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71.