It was the perfect storm: the vaunted Indianapolis 500 had lost its heart and its way since The Split and heroes on track were as scarce as major newspapers in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway pressroom. Indy needed an injection of adrenaline, an exciting storyline and somebody new to cheer for. It got all three in less than 10 minutes.
When Danica Patrick took the lead late in the 2005 Indy 500 (ABOVE), the roar from the grandstands resonated across the country's television sets and all the way into barbershop conversations. This pretty, feisty, 100-pound American woman had driven open-wheel racing back into the mainstream and gave the comatose Indy Racing League an instant Q Rating.
For seven seasons Patrick has been the face of the IZOD IndyCar Series which, depending on your view, was either the best thing possible or, if you were a purist, false advertising. And now that she's headed for NASCAR full time in 2012, there's either hand-wringing or joyous celebration from inside the IndyCar community.
“It will be noticeable that she's gone but not as devastating as it would have been a few years ago,” reckons ABC/ESPN analyst Scott Goodyear. “The series was struggling for attention and it would have been a huge hit. Danica was the only story back then and now she's just one of them. I think the racing is the best story now.”
But nobody has ever generated more fans, news or money for a handful of shining moments than this 29-year-old dynamo from Roscoe, Ill. From that timely pass of Dan Wheldon into the history books at Indy in 2005, to her lone victory at Japan in '08 (RIGHT) and some memorable wheel-to-wheel duels on fast ovals, Danica's highlight film isn't quite as extensive as her footage on national television commercials.
“I always thought if she was successful, she'd be huge,” declares Bobby Rahal, the man who made it all possible when he signed Patrick in 2001 and put her on the fast track in the USA. “She was a good-looking young lady doing something in a man's world and if she could drive, well, it was a huge hook. I guess I presumed she'd be in TV commercials and in Hollywood some day.”
Yet, again, it was all about timing. NASCAR had no female star and Danica was exploring new territory. Janet Guthrie, Desire Wilson, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher had all broken ground at various times in Indy car racing but none of them packed Patrick's panache.
Did she have better equipment than those pioneers? Damn straight. But she also did something with it. A third at Indianapolis in 2009 and fifth in the point standings, a pair of seconds at Texas and Homestead in 2010, three pole positions and the ability to bring it home in one piece should have proved she was more than just a pretty face. She also had the emotional makeup of a guy. She didn't cry if things didn't go her way; she got pissed.
“I'd never seen a woman with that kind of competitive attitude, except maybe Desire Wilson,” continues Rahal, speaking of the only woman to ever win a race in Formula 1 cars (the Aurora British series). “Danica had somewhat of a killer instinct in her and that's how she drove at times. But she also drives pretty smart and doesn't make many mistakes. She had a drive I'd never seen in other women.”
Adds former teammate Tony Kanaan: “Danica is mentally tough – you have to be to survive in this business – and her determination is keen as well.”