Is Danica Patrick a pretty darn good driver, or just a pretty face? This question has sparked debate and controversy in the sports world for close to a decade now. With her switch from IndyCar to NASCAR, and a stunning pole position win at the 2013 Daytona 500, Danica continues to make her case on auto racing’s biggest stage—by stomping on the gas and taking no prisoners. The trappings of media superstardom overshadowed her ability behind the wheel in her 20s. Now in her 30s, Danica has a chance to make some serious history. This is her story…

GROWING UP

Danica Sue Patrick was born on March 25, 1982 in Beloit, Wisconsin. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Her parents, Bev and TJ, met on a blind date at a snowmobile race in 1978 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was a championship-winning driver, and she was a mechanic for a female racer. They were married and had two children, Danica and her younger sister, Brooke.

The family lived in the Illinois town of Roscoe, where TJ owned a plate glass company and coffee shop. From her dad, Danica got her competitive spirit. From her mom, she got her determination, plus a little bit of a temper.

As a littel girl, Danica recalls watching her father race. She also remembers her mother bundled in a huge fur coat. Danica loved that coat, but she would have much rather been riding her dad’s snowmobile around the track. Brooke felt the same. In fact, she asked her parents if she could try racing. The Patricks decided to buy her a go-kart. Soon Danica was behind the wheel, too. She was a natural. Brooke lost interest after crashing several times in a race, but her older sister kept going with it.

Danica began entering organized events at the age of 10, with her dad as her crew chief. He was an expert at preparing the engine, carburetor and clutch for a race. In short, he made his daughter go fast. TJ also imparted his racing wisdom to Danica when she was a young driver. He advised her to never look back, because the race was in front of her. He tried to get her to feel what the engine and tires and car body was doing, too. He knew that, ultimately, this is what gives a driver an edge.

The most important thing Danica learned from TJ was honesty. If she was driving poorly, he would let her know. If she asked him how she was doing, he would give her the straight, unadulterated truth.

Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wisconsin, was the scene of many of Danica’s initial triumphs. Three months after taking up the sport, she was shattering track records there. But she won races and titles all over the region—including the World Karting Association Great Lakes Sprint Series. In 1994, Danica took her first Grand National Championship. In 1996, she dominated the competition, winning 38 of the 49 feature races she entered.

One of Danica’s first heroes was driver Lyn St. James, who used her understanding of math and physics to make up for what she lacked in size and strength. St. James competed in all types of racing, and at all levels, including the Indianapolis 500. She also had a driving school, which Danica attended. St. James saw the teenager's potential and began introducing her to influential people in the racing world. She took her to the Indy 500 in 1997.

A year later, when Danica was 16, the Patricks decided to send her to England to further her open-wheel career. Racing officials had told them about a developmental league in the UK, and Bev and TJ felt their daughter's future lay in something more advanced than go-karts. Danica lived and competed abroad for more than three years, often drawing the ire of fans and fellow drivers as a Yankee interloper.

In 1999, Danica's first full season overseas, she finished a respectable ninth in the Formula Vauxhall series. The following year, Danica moved up to the super-competitive Zetek Formula Ford Series and notched a second-place finish in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival. It was the highest finish ever for an American driver of any age or sex.

ON THE RISE

In 2001, Danica caught the eye of Bobby Rahal, who was running Jaguar’s Formula One team that year. She bowled him over with her talent and toughness. A woman racing in a foreign country faced unimaginable obstacles, and Danica seemed ready for every one of them.

Indeed, Danica had become an icy competitor by this time—so much so that her parents noticed the change whenever she returned home for visits. Looking back, she realizes that her time in the UK served to amplify her natural competitiveness.

Rahal soon signed Danica to a multi-year contract. He and team co-owner David Letterman entered her in developmental racing series in the U.S. over the next three seasons, watching with delight as she worked her way up the open-wheel ladder. In 2001, Danica drove midget cars, open-wheel cars in the Toyota Atlantic series and American Le Mans sports cars. In 2002, she ran in the Barber Dodge Pro Series and tested a NASCAR Busch Series stock car. The highlight of her year was a victory at a Grand Prix event in Long Beach. Little did she know it would be six long and crazy years before she would take the checkered flag again.

In 2003, Danica settled into the Toyota Series and became the first woman to record a podium finish when she crossed the line third at a race in Monterrey, Mexico. A year later, Danica placed third overall in the Toyota Atlantic Championship. Rahal also had her run an IndyCar at Homestead and Kentucky, and was pleased with the results. That was enough for Danica to earn a ride at the apex of her sport, the Indy Racing League, for 2005. When Rahal made the announcement, it caught Danica by surprise. She went numb when she heard the news.

The first four races in what would be a dream season went well. Danica actually led her fourth event before a gearing problem threatened to end her day. She managed to hold things together for a fourth-place finish. From there, it was off to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.


 

 

 

 

 


Lyn St. James book (by mark Stewart)

     
 

Danica was the first woman ever to arrive at Indy with true first-rate equipment and an experienced team supporting her. Racing pioneer Janet Guthrie told reporters that, despite Danica’s inexperience, her talent gave her a chance to win if she got a few breaks. The press picked up on the idea that she might take the checkered flag. Suddenly "Danica-Mania" began. Reporters swarmed around her whenever she appeared. Interview requests poured in.

The Indianapolis 500 was the big one Danica had been dreaming about since she was 10. She knew she had to stay focused. In the weeks preceding the race, she kept the off-track craziness off-track.

Danica was consistently one of the fastest drivers on the track. In qualifying, she turned in the fourth-fastest time, earning the inside position on the second row. She might have won the pole, but her car wobbled suddenly heading into the first turn of her qualifying run. The other drivers were impressed by how Danica coolly steered out of trouble. They also appreciated how she turned all the attention being lavished upon her into publicity for the IRL and her fellow drivers.

With many insiders fretting about a sub-par performance, Danica ended up running a superb Indy 500. She overcame two major problems—a stall in the pits midway through the race and a spinout that damaged the front wing of her car. Danica recovered to lead at three different times for a total of 19 laps. She was in first place when Dan Wheldon passed her with six laps to go and ended up fourth after Bryan Herta and teammate Vitor Meira streaked past her. It was the highest finish ever for a female driver at Indy. Danica collected $378,000 for her troubles, which included a $25,000 bonus as the highest-finishing rookie.

After the race, Robby Gordon—who had left IRL for NASCAR—pointed out that Danica had an advantage because she weighed only 100 pounds. The lighter the car, the faster it goes, he claimed. Gordon suggested that IRL should make a rule that all cars carry the same weight, as Formula One does. IRL, by contrast, stipulated that cars had to weigh at least 1,525 pounds. Several experts joined in on this discussion, and ultimately the consensus was that Danica benefitted from only a slight edge, if any at all.

That July, Danica won her first IRL pole position, at the Kansas Speedway. She took her second pole at the Kentucky Speedway that August. Later she made it a trifecta—tying the IRL rookie record set by Tomas Scheckter—at Chicagoland Speedway.


Janet Guthrie card
     
 

By the end of the year, Danica—who wound up 12th in points—was the face of the IRL. She handled the attention quite well and did not elicit jealousy from her fellow drivers. They were happy to have the publicity and the attention of racing fans. Her family was a great help in keeping her sane in the face of increasing media attention. So did her fiancée, Paul Hospenthal, a physical therapist who worked with baseball players and PGA golfers. They had met after she injured her hip during a yoga session in 2002. They were later married.

Danica also had the support of almost all of the folks in IRL. She had known many of them from back in her karting days—and from her time racing in England. As a female in a male-dominated culture, Danica was a threat to some. But most had seen with their own eyes that she worked as hard as anyone. They also recognized the dues she paid to earn her spot in the series.

The 2006 season began on a tragic note at the Homestead Miami Speedway, when Danica’s teammate, Paul Dana, was killed in a crash during a practice session. She and teammate Buddy Rice withdrew from the race.

Rahal-Letterman went into battle that season with the Panoz chassis, while most of its rivals were sporting the newer Dallara chassis. The team’s drivers, including Danica, struggled to record Top 5 finishes. She made a decent showing at the Indy 500, qualifying tenth and finishing eighth.

At the Kansas Motor Speedway the first weekend in July, Danica recorded a 12th place finish. It was notable in that, after the race, she did not receive a single interview request. Danica was no longer a phenomenon—she was now just another driver.

Danica’s departure from the racing headlines was brief. She became the talk of the sport once again after her parents were spotted talking to NASCAR people at a race in Chicago. Throughout July, rumors swirled regarding her future. Danica put those rumors to rest when she announced she would stick with open-wheel racing—though she planned to switch from the Letterman-Rahal team to Michael Andretti’s Green team. The move was an upgrade for Danica, who felt that Andretti Green gave her a better chance to win. The team had taken the 2004 and 2005 IRL championships.

Danica’s performance improved somewhat in the second half of the year, as did that of her teammates. Rahal-Letterman engineers upgraded their chassis and changed the setup of their cars. She finished fourth at both Nashville and Milwaukee in July and began to ascend the rankings.

Although Danica ended up ninth in points among drivers, she failed to win a race in her second IRL campaign. Each time she finished back in the pack, she girded herself for the same questions. When will you win? Can you win? Will you win?


Danica Patrick,
2005 ESPN The Magazine
     
 

Toward the end of 2006, Danica made her 33rd start. This was significant in that it represented the average number of races it took for an IRL driver to notch a win. From that point, ever non-victory strengthened the suggestion that Danica might be a below-average driver. Worse, some began referring to her as the Anna Kournikova of racing—sexy but without a championship trophy on her mantle.

MAKING HER MARK

The 2007 season started with a bang for Danica. Her first race for Andretti Green ended with a crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway. She was all right and went on to record several Top 10 finishes in the ensuing months. This included an eight-place showing at Indy. Danica ran as high as second in the race but fell back after pitting following a rain delay. She was working her way back toward the leaders when the race ended early due to the bad weather.

Though still in demand for TV interviews and magazine layouts, Danica was one of the "guys" at this point. She proved it after a race in Milwaukee, during which she had bumped cars with Dan Wheldon. Afterwards, she was mad and went looking for the Englishman to give him a piece of her mind. Blows between IRL drivers are not unheard of, but in this case cooler heads prevailed.

With her adrenaline still pumping, Danica made a spectacular showing at her next race, the LearJet 550 in Texas. She fought for the lead all day and ended up third, crossing the finish line less than a second behind winner Sam Hornish Jr. That first victory still eluded her.

Bad luck plagued Danica for much of the rest of the year. She was involved in spinouts, fender-benders and blown tires—all of which kept her from reaching Victory Lane. Even so, when luck was with Danica, she did well. She ended the year ranked 7th among IRL drivers.

Danica opened 2008 with two Top 10 finishes. In her third race, the Japan 300, she finally broke through. Bad weather moved the event from Saturday to Sunday. Danica was running well and feeling good to start. She remained within striking distance of the leaders all day. With five laps to go—and Danica in fifth place—leader Scott Dixon had to pit, moving her up to fourth. One lap later, she moved from fourth to second when Wheldon and teammate Tony Kanaan had to do a splash and dash.


Danica Patrick, 2007 Promo Card
     
 

With two laps to go, Danica passed pole-winner and race leader Helio Castroneves. Both drivers had guessed correctly that the race would come down to fuel strategy—Danica now had more in her tank. All Helio could do was tip his cap to her. She won by 5.8 seconds.

The victory was the first by a woman in an IRL race, and the first for a female driver in IndyCar history. It had come in Danica’s 50th start.

Her luck did not hold at the 2008 Indy 500. Danica collided with Ryan Briscoe while pitting and destroyed her suspension system. After being pushed back to her pit, Danica hopped out of the car and went after Briscoe, but she was stopped by security. The two drivers were both fined and placed on probation after the season. Danica scored several Top 10 finishes during the year and finished the IndyCar Series in sixth place—highest among all American drivers.

In 2009, Danica made her second big splash at the Indy 500, this time bettering her fourth-place finish in ’05 by one spot. She crossed the line third behind Castroneves and Wheldon. It was her best finish of the year, but she was consistent enough to end 2009 in the #5 spot in the series standings—and again Danica was the top-ranked American driver. 

Danica stayed with the Andretti team in 2010 (now renamed Andretti Autosport) and also raced in NASCAR’s second-tier Nationwide series for JR Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team. Danica drove a bright green GoDaddy car in both series. By this point in her career, the casual sports fan knew more about her racy GoDaddy ads than they did about her increasingly impressive racing career.  

Danica did well at the Indy 500, finishing 6th, and scored second-place finishes at the Texas Motor Speedway and at Homestead. Overall, she had her ups and downs on the IndyCar circuit and only made the Top 10 in the championships standings with her strong season-ending performance at Homestead.

Danica's 2010 Nationwide season was rough at times. She had several crashes and her best finish was 19th at the Ford 300, also in Homestead. She completed her first NASCAR season ranked #43.

Danica had a brief moment of glory at the 2011 Indy 500 when she piloted a poor-handling car into first place during the race. Fuel issues prevented her from hanging on to the top spot and she finished 10th. Handling problems continued to crop up with her car at various times during the season, preventing Danica from making consistently strong finishes. She repeated her 10th-place finish.


Danica Patrick poster
     
 

Danica enjoyed better luck in the Nationwide series in 2011. In the Sam’s Town 300 in Las Vegas, she finished 4th. It was the best finish ever for a woman in a NASCAR event. In July, Danica nearly won the Subway 250 at Daytona. A mishap on the final lap doomed her to a 10th-place finish, but she had led the race for nearly a half-hour. In all, Danica competed in a dozen Nationwide events in 2011 and finished 26th in the driver standings.

Heading into the 2012 season, Danica announced that she would be leaving the Andretti team and focusing her attention on NASCAR. At the first event of the year—the Gatorade Duel at Daytona—she stunned fans by winning the pole position. The last woman to accomplish this was Shawna Robinson, at a 1994 Busch Series race. Unfortunately, Danica crashed on the final lap of the race.

Through an alliance with Baldwin Racing, Danica was also part of the starting field at the big Sunday race, the Daytona 500. Her appearance was a huge media event, but the thrill lasted only a couple of minutes. Danica was involved in a crash on lap 2 and her day ended early.

Danica finished the 2012 campaign ranked 10th in the Nationwide standings. She did not fare as well in her 10 Sprint Cup starts, ranking 62nd. The "highlight" of her season was probably an incident at Bristol in August—her fourth Sprint Cup event of the year—when she gave Regan Smith the finger after he pushed her into the wall on the 436th lap. The incident was an Internet sensation for several weeks.

Danica moved up to Sprint Cup in 2013, driving for Stewart-Haas Racing. She also signed a deal to compete in 10 Nationwide races for Turner Motorsports. At this point, NASCAR fans were looking for Danica to take a major step forward in her career. She did more than that by winning the pole position at the 2013 Daytona 500 in her #10 Chevy SS.

Danica’s speed of 196.434 mph blew the competition off the track. Danica was the eighth driver to make a qualifying run and had to wait for 37 others to take a shot at knocking her out of the top spot. Jeff Gordon was the only one to come close; no one else topped 196 mph. No woman had ever won a pole in a top-tier NASCAR event, let alone the sport's most prestigious race.


Danica Patrick, 2011 A&G
     
 

As Danica enters her early 30s, she possesses both the savvy and experience to make an impact on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit. Her status as a media star ensures that she will always have a ride. What she does with these advantages is entirely up to her at this point. She is already a great female racer. Now she must prove she is a great racer—period.

DANICA THE DRIVER

When drivers look into Danica’s eyes, they see an intensely focused athlete. When they shake her hand, they often wince—she has a vice-grip. She learned this from her dad, who taught her that you always show strength when you meet a competitor for the first time.

Danica is a natural athlete, and her immense talent translates well into racing. She packs a lot of strength and stamina into her diminutive frame. She is also very strong mentally. Danica is as sharp at the end of a race as she is when it starts. She is persistent and methodical in every aspect of racing. And she is decisive. When Danica decides to pass, there is no wavering—she hits the gas and goes.

IRL and NASCAR drivers have learned the hard way that Danica never backs down from a challenge. She dishes out twice what she receives and is best left alone during a race. She is impossible to intimidate and fanatically determined. No one plays chicken with her anymore.

Danica’s greatest learning curve in the heavier stock-car world was figuring out how to avoid accidents. She’s had more than her fair share. Some have actually been caused by Danica in retaliation for over-aggressive moves—both real and imagined—by other drivers. With experience, she is learning the difference between the two.

In terms of her technical knowledge, Danica is the equal of most top-level drivers. Her team mechanics and engineers know they only have to explain something once and it clicks. She also has a memory like an elephant.


Danica Patrick, ESPN The Magazine
     

 

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