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Danica Mania

IndyCar Series gets publicity boost
from ‘Danica’ craze

Patrick seeks to make history as first female winner

“Every time you go a little higher,
that’s the new bar that you’ve set.”
– Danica Patrick

 

 
(August 2005)
Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

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. She’s brought the sport more media attention than it’s received in perhaps its entire existence since the 1996 split from CART.
And she hasn’t 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. She’s 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 men’s 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 don’t feel one bit uncomfortable with it. I look at the pictures and I think, ‘The girls are pretty.’ I had fun.”

August Kentucky Speedway Cover
August Kentucky
Speedway Cover

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 it’s through that kind of magazine or whether it’s through charity events, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s 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 sheer guts.
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 Wheldon’s 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, “I’d rather have won the race. That’s what they’ll remember in the history books.”

Feeling no pressure

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 don’t 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 it’s unrealistic. You’re going to come down, and then you’re going to bounce back up... Every time you go a little higher, that’s the new bar that you’ve set.”

Danica Patrick FHM

Danica Patrick says this provocative pose in 2003 for FHM men’s 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 person’s a fan and they’re 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. Fisher’s 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 she’s been dealing with it in a very good way,” said Panther Racing driver Scheckter during the July 12 teleconference. “She’s been driving very sensibly. She’s been finishing races.”
Scheckter added that he was impressed with Patrick’s handling of the media attention. Some of it has even rubbed off on him. “I’ve done quite a few of these teleconference calls, and I’ve never spoken with anyone from the New York Times. Obviously, she’s bringing a lot of media and press into the sport that’s 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 Scheckter’s teammate.
“Though she’s 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 she’s handling it so well.”

Danica Patrick Sports Ill. Cover

Could 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. That’s the thing that jumps out at you. It’s 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 NASCAR’s national series, such as the Busch or Nextel Cup.
Asked recently about Patrick’s success and media frenzy, Fisher said she hoped the young driver would soon win an Indy race. “I think it’s great,” said Fisher, who first raced at Indy as a 19-year-old.

She came 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. James’s 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 Patrick’s recent success is the result of years of preparation. For that reason, she is not surprised by the young driver’s 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 it’s not a surprise to me as it is to everybody else.”
To fulfill one’s 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 can’t teach someone what it’s like to drive a race car or deal with the public. You just have to get out there and do it.”

Danica Patrick with David Letterman

Photo by the IRL

Team co-owner David Letterman talks with Danica Patrick at the
Indy 500.

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.”

Hooked 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 international experience.
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 year’s 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 ESPN’s highest-rated IndyCar Series telecast ever.
“At the start of the season, I told Danica I didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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.

 

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