When Danica Patrick drafted past Dan Wheldon and into the lead of the 2005 Indianapolis 500 with 10 laps remaining, the noise was deafening: 250,000 people stood and roared as this ballsy 100-pound pixie had the boys on the ropes.
It didn’t matter that Wheldon re-took the lead with seven laps left and Patrick ended up finishing fourth, because her life would never be the same. She had become a household name in the matter of five minutes. Newspapers, magazines, sports talk shows and late night hosts trumpeted her success, and for the first time in two decades, an IndyCar driver was back on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Danica became a one-word celebrity overnight, and open-wheel racing suddenly had a pulse again in the United States.
Little girls and women with absolutely no interest in auto racing began paying attention. And plenty of men sang Patrick’s praises as they were buying her T-shirt. The attention and press was overwhelming, not so much to Danica, but to some of her competitors and people in the IndyCar paddock. They originally loved the fact she’d put IndyCar back on the map, but that enthusiasm quickly turned into jealousy on several fronts.
For the next couple years she was the focus whenever IndyCar came to town, and the underlying grumble was that she hadn’t done anything to deserve that kind of coverage and until she won a race it was all hype.
Then when she won in Japan in 2008, the critics all said, big deal, it was a fuel mileage victory and, besides, Roger Penske ordered Helio Castroneves to slow down so she could win. (Honestly, I heard that 100 times).
When she headed for NASCAR in 2012, IndyCar didn’t try to stop her ,and the general feeling seemed to be good riddance instead of good luck. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground – people either adored her or loathed her, and she was more polarizing than popular by the time she left. Of course, the main complaint was that she got way too much publicity and didn’t deserve half of it. She was just a pretty face, but not a race driver. She was hyped to the heavens, and not hell on wheels. Her entire resume was a few laps at Indy, and she only got up there because of strategy.
First of all, it wasn’t her fault that sportswriters and TV folks clamored for interviews. Or ran her photo. Or acted like she was all IndyCar had to offer. Did she take advantage of her status? Damn right she did, and whether it was national TV commercials or print ads, it was indirectly drawing attention to IndyCar it would have never received. I was in a restaurant one night in Kansas City and heard a few guys discussing their weekend plans. They were NASCAR fans, but they reckoned they ought to go check out that “little sweetheart on the GoDaddy commercials”.
I always found it funny that even some of the people in my business barred their fangs at the mere mention of her name. The “Queen of Hype”, they called her. Other than leading a few laps at Indy, what has she ever done?
And that brings us to today’s sermon. I don’t care if you adore her, think she’s bitchy, got mad when she didn’t sign an autograph or became an IndyCar fan because she was nice to your kid in the garage area. But don’t tell me she wasn’t a racer.
Sarah Fisher is the first female that drove an IndyCar who wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the boys, and her short-track mentality served her well. But Danica was the first female IndyCar driver that acted like a guy. She had a little chip on her shoulder, and didn’t take s$#@ from anyone. Those years in England when she was a teenager racing Formula Fords without mom or dad around gave her an edge that she never lost. So when somebody says she never did anything besides her five minutes of fame at Indy, I know either they don’t like her or don’t know what they’re talking about. Or both. Her drive in 2005 at IMS isn’t even in her Top 10.
So humor me and follow along:
- In 2010, she and Tony Kanaan waged one of the fiercest, wheel-to-wheel duels I’ve ever seen at Homestead in the closing 10 laps. She ran second, T.K. was third.
- In 2007 at Texas, the scariest/hairest place IndyCars have run on since Langhorne, she traded the lead with Sam Hornish, Ryan Briscoe and T.K. before finishing third.
- In 2007, she finished second at Watkins Glen and drew praise from Paul Tracy (“that’s a badass race track and she was impressive,” he said later.)
- In 2009, she started 10th and finished third at Indy behind Helio and Wheldon, but ahead of Scott Dixon, Will Power and Dario.
- In 2010, again at Texas, she chased Briscoe to the checkered flag and took second place.
- She ran fourth, fourth and fifth at Milwaukee, which has always been known as a driver’s track.
- In 2009, she went from 22nd to fourth at Long Beach after The Split had been mended.
- In 2008, she finished third at Chicago and Kansas.
- In 2007, she made a couple of late passes to take third at Nashville.
- At Motegi, she became the only female to ever win an IndyCar race.
Her average finish at Indianapolis is 8.7, but she’s scored a third, fourth, sixth and a pair of eighths in her seven starts. She finished fifth in the 2009 point standings, and was only out of the Top 10 once in seven years.
I’m not saying she’s a first-ballot hall of famer or should be mentioned alongside the likes of Castroneves, Dixon, Franchitti, Kanaan or Power, but she sure as hell proved she belonged in an IndyCar. She’s also going to be in the history books forever because she earned it. And, yeah, yeah, I know, she’s received way too much publicity this month for somebody who turned their back on IndyCar. Really? She did what lots of guys have done, she chased the money (and she caught it).
It is too bad she didn’t stay in IndyCar from the standpoint of being competitive, because her NASCAR career was a bust (like many open-wheeler drivers before her) but she did make the right choice to retire at where it all began.
I’ve got no idea how she’ll do in the race, but it doesn’t matter. Danica and Indy will always belong in the same sentence.