Danica. Just half- way through
her rookie season on the IndyCar Racing League circuit, she has already
become known by only her first name.
Though she may not yet be as big as Elvis, Madonna, Sting or Cher, Danica
Patrick is the latest rage among IndyCar race fans. Shes brought
the sport more media attention than its received in perhaps its
entire existence since the 1996 split from CART.
And she hasnt even won a race!
This young, attractive, 23-year-old woman from Roscoe, Ill., has captured
the imagination of more than just the auto racing community. Shes
adorned the June 6 cover of Sports Illustrated. Even before she was a
known quantity, she appeared in a sexy swimsuit on the April 2003 cover
of FHM, a mens entertainment magazine.
Asked later about her sexy poses that graced the cover and inside pages
of the latter publication, she told a reporter, It was an opportunity
to find a sponsorship, and it opened a lot of doors. You have to do what
you have to do, within reason and within respect of yourself, but I dont
feel one bit uncomfortable with it. I look at the pictures and I think,
The girls are pretty. I had fun.
Now that her star power has risen to epic proportions
for an IndyCar racer, the subject of the magazine spread came up again
during a July 12 IndyCar Series teleconference. Patrick said she was not
embarrassed about it, adding, I think as long as you are consistent
in your character, you stand behind what you do and everything, that shows
what kind of person you are. When you believe in certain things, follow
through with it and enjoy what you do.
Everybody has a way of showing their personality, she continued.
Everybody has a way of reaching out to people whether its
through that kind of magazine or whether its through charity events,
theres nothing wrong with it. Its just a different way.
They say sex sells, and the Indy Racing League is milking it for all its
worth, publicity-wise. But Patrick still has to get in the car and drive
around a race track in heavy traffic at more than 220 mph. And that takes
The combination of glamour and speed has worked. Ever since her appearance
in the Indianapolis 500 this season, Patrick has dominated any news coming
from the IRL. During the race, she became the first woman to lead the
Indy 500. Media coverage of her accomplishment overwhelmed winner Dan
Wheldons victory. Patrick started and finished fourth in the Rahal-Letterman
Argent Panoz-Honda, but from the attention she received, you would have
thought she won.
Wheldon responded to being overshadowed by the female star by saying,
Id rather have won the race. Thats what theyll
remember in the history books.
Patrick appears to be enjoying the spotlight and, perhaps incredibly,
has kept her focus on being competitive in a male-dominated sport. Asked
during the teleconference about any pressures being placed on her to actually
win a race, she replied, I dont feel any more responsibility
or any more obligation to do better because of it. My desire to be successful
and to win has been the same forever... I think every athlete at the top
level tries as hard as they can all the time.
She said that every athlete or person with drive sets a new bar with each
accomplishment he achieves. Sometimes its unrealistic. Youre
going to come down, and then youre going to bounce back up... Every
time you go a little higher, thats the new bar that youve
Patrick says this provocative pose in 2003 for FHM mens magazine
got her noticed for an eventual deal with Rahal-Letterman Racing.
For a rookie driver to win a race in the IRL is
rare. Just three have done so. Two of the victories that by Buzz
Calkins in 1996 at Walt Disney World, and Jim Guthrie in 1997 at Phoenix
were claimed in the series early years. The last rookie
to win a race was Tomas Scheckter in July 2002 at Michigan.
Asked if she was often recognized in restaurants or needed a body guard
to protect her from adoring fans, she laughed, saying, Goodness,
no. Absolutely not.
She said some fans will recognize her and speak to her or request an autograph
on occasion. The imposition on her privacy has not become a problem yet.
It just means that persons a fan and theyre paying attention
to the sport.
By mid-July, the halfway point of the 17-race season, she led the rookie
points race and stood 10th in series points. At Kansas on July 3, Patrick
became only the second woman since Sarah Fisher to win an IRL pole. Fishers
feat took place in 2002 at the Kentucky Speedway.
While her male counterparts may be quietly jealous of all the attention
she has received, they also publicly praise her for bringing the sport
much-needed media coverage.
I think she has to deal with it, and shes been dealing with
it in a very good way, said Panther Racing driver Scheckter during
the July 12 teleconference. Shes been driving very sensibly.
Shes been finishing races.
Scheckter added that he was impressed with Patricks handling of
the media attention. Some of it has even rubbed off on him. Ive
done quite a few of these teleconference calls, and Ive never spoken
with anyone from the New York Times. Obviously, shes bringing a
lot of media and press into the sport thats much needed.
It feels like she came out of nowhere, but those who are students
of the sport have been watching her develop in the lower formulas,
said 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier, who was signed by Panther Racing
in midseason this year to drive as Scheckters teammate.
Though shes a rookie in the IndyCar Series class, she has
a great background of amateur and professional racing for many years that
gives her the foundation, I think, to be successful.
Lazier added, Definitely, the pressure of being a rookie with this
sort of attention is very unusual and uncommon. It is probably a little
bit unfair. But I think shes handling it so well.
a Wheaties box be
next for Danica Patrick?
Only if she wins a race.
Here she adorns a June
cover of Sports Illustrated.
Earlier this year, three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny
Rutherford, who serves as a driver coach and pace car driver for the IRL,
said he saw something in Patrick that made him believe she has the tools
needed to be a winning race car driver.
She has that look in her eyes. Thats the thing that jumps
out at you. Its that little extra spark; that passion for racing
that you look for in a winner.
The last female to stir up the IndyCar race circuit was Fisher, still
considered by many to be the (previous) most popular driver. This year,
Fisher is competing in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series,
driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. She is part of a driver development program
under the guidance of Bill McAnally Racing/Richard Childress Racing. The
twin teams are hoping that Fisher will soon be ready to move up to one
of NASCARs national series, such as the Busch or Nextel Cup.
Asked recently about Patricks success and media frenzy, Fisher said
she hoped the young driver would soon win an Indy race. I think
its great, said Fisher, who first raced at Indy as a 19-year-old.
to IRL well prepared
Patrick is not just another pretty face. She can drive, and she has lots
of experience behind the wheel, even at the young age of 23.
She is a graduate of former IndyCar racer Lyn St. Jamess driver
performance program in Phoenix, where Patrick learned how to handle herself
on and off the track. Others who have participated in the program include
stock car driver Erin Crocker, who won the pole in July at the ARCA RE/MAX
race at Sparta, and ARCA drivers Deborah Renshaw and Christi Passmore,
who both competed in that same race. Other graduates include NASCAR Busch
Series driver Boston Reid, Sondi Eden and Fisher.
St. James says Patricks recent success is the result of years of
preparation. For that reason, she is not surprised by the young drivers
early success on and off the track.
It is fulfilling the potential I knew she had, St. James said
July 14 by telephone from her Indianapolis office. So its
not a surprise to me as it is to everybody else.
To fulfill ones potential takes experience, the veteran of 15 IndyCar
races said. Patrick, who lists St. James among her race heroes,
also is using the mentoring she gained from St. James driver development
program. Patrick attended the program twice as a 14-year-old and
again at age 16.
We try to maximize the value they get
from their tutoring but you cant teach someone what its like
to drive a race car or deal with the public. You just have to get out
there and do it.
by the IRL
co-owner David Letterman talks with Danica Patrick at the
As young teens, Patrick and her younger sister,
Brooke, rode in the Indy 500 parade with St. James. I wanted to
share with them what it is like behind the scenes of Indy in the month
of May, St. James said. But no matter what I tell her, she
still has to do it; to get in a race car and drive. You have to live it.
on racing early
Patrick was born in Beloit, Wis., to parents T.J. and Bev Patrick. She
has a sister, Brooke, who did not fall in love with go-karting like Danica
did, around age 10. Danica soon joined the World Karting Association and
in 1994 captured the series Grand National Championship in the Yamaha
Sportsman class. She won additional karting titles in 1995 and 1996, establishing
herself as a rising star. In her final WKA season in 1997, Patrick won
the national title in both the Yamaha Lite and HPV classes.
Moving up to the next level of racing, Patrick joined the Formula Vauxhall
Winter Series and had to move to England at age 16 to do so. She spent
1998 dividing her time between a limited race schedule in England and
training at the Formula Ford racing school in Canada.
She made her full-season British racing debut in 1999, finishing ninth
that year. In 2000, she placed second at the Formula Ford Festival, the
best finish ever by an American at the British event. In 2001, she won
the Gorsline Scholarship Award for top upcoming road racing driver
and competed in the British Zetek Formula Ford Championship. Upon completing
these races, Patrick was touted as the top female open-wheel driver with
That resume allowed the 5-2, 100-pound Patrick to join the Indy Racing
League. She tried out for several teams, finally signing a multi-year
deal in 2002 with Rahal Letterman, owned in part by TV talk show host
David Letterman and Bobby Rahal, winner of the 1986 Indy 500. To prepare
her for the IndyCar circuit, the team sent her to compete in the Toyota
Atlantic Series for two years.
In 2003, her first season there, she became the first woman in Toyota
series history to win a pole position and reach the podium. The next year,
she placed third in the Toyota Atlantic Championship. She had impressed
her team owners enough to move her up to the IRL for the 2005 season.
As the third driver for the Rahal-Letterman
team, Patrick made her debut at the 2005 Toyota Indy 300. She made the
biggest media impression, however, at this years Indy 500. Only
the fourth female to compete in the prestigious event, Patrick led a total
of 19 laps before falling back late in the race and finishing fourth.
Her accomplishment at Indy, however, set off what has become a summer-long
case of Danica Mania.
Now engaged to her physical therapist, Paul Hospenthal, 39, and living
in Phoenix, Patrick continues to send a buzz through the IRL circuit wherever
she goes. In August, she is expected to bring her entourage of media followers
to Sparta, Ky., to compete in the Amber Alert Indy 300.
Tim Bray, Director of Communications at the Kentucky Speedway, said he
began receiving media inquiries in early July about a possible pre-race
Danica Patrick press conference.
Patrick finished ninth at Kansas. Tony Kanaan instead took the checkered
flag, perhaps to the dismay of race fans hoping for a historic moment.
The race was ESPNs highest-rated IndyCar Series telecast ever.
At the start of the season, I told Danica I didnt care where
she finished as long as she finished races, Rahal said earlier this
year. Our track success has certainly come quicker than I thought
it would, and she has done a magnificent job balancing the demands in
the race car and the demands on her outside of the car.... I know the
best is still yet to come.
There are other drivers in the league this season besides Danica Patrick,
but from recent media coverage, you often wouldnt know it. For now,
Danica Mania has taken center stage.
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout.
Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.