When you live in the macho car world, it’s not cool to be a Danica Patrick fan.
While she may be the only woman to win an IndyCar race, there are lots of questions about just how much driving talent she really has. That one victory had more to do with fuel strategy than all out speed. Now she’s moving on to NASCAR with lots of people grumbling that it has more to do with her looks than her speed. The reality is, they’re probably right.
But don’t dismiss her too quickly.
I first met Danica back in 2004 when she was running in the Toyota Atlantic series. I interviewed her as part of the TV coverage plenty of times. Frankly, I was a little annoyed at her cockiness. Most young drivers were more than anxious to do anything we asked. Danica was always more complicated.
Our paths crossed again in 2010 when I started covering IndyCars for ABC. By then, she’d become really complicated. Finding five minutes for an interview was a pain. Breaking through her emotional armor was tough.
Danica Patrick walking down Indy pit lane in 2008
But I came to appreciate two very important aspects of Danica. First, she is driven. And I just don’t just that word so I can enjoy the racing pun. I may have mocked the pictures of her walking down pit lane during the 2008 Indy 500 with her helmet on so she could chew out the driver she thought had squeezed her into too tight, but I had to admire the fire. I’ve listened to a frustrated Danica venting over her team radio on more than a few occasions. She doesn’t always say the right thing. Danica couldn’t figure out why people were so mad during the 2010 Indy 500 after she threw the blame for her slow lap times on to her car (and by extension, her team). But it’s not like she can’t drive. Her race with Tony Kanaan for second at Homestead in 2010 was spectacular. Her ability to bring her car home in the points race after race set an IndyCar record.
The second reason I admire Danica is a little more philosophical: she doesn’t bring disrespect to our sport. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of drivers who are great role models. However, most of them don’t face the same pressures as Danica Patrick. The reality is that she is a megastar and I have no doubt that the slimy tabloid paparazzi would love nothing more than to get photos of her drunk at some nightclub or just screaming at the local grocery store checkout girl. And yet we never see them. She may not be the warmest person on the pit lane, but she knows how to protect her brand. And by protecting her brand, she protects our sport. It’s not easy living on the pedestal of fame, but so far she’s managed to avoid the dark side.
Interviewing Danica Patrick at Las Vegas
Towards the end of last season, I finally saw the ice melt a little. Maybe it was because she knew it was her last year in IndyCars. Maybe it was because I started to view her differently. At the end of the tragic finale in Las Vegas, I gave her a hug and wished her well.
So put me in the category of someone who is actually sorry to see Danica leave IndyCar, and who wishes her good luck in NASCAR.