A roller-coaster first season

first_img It wasn’t quite what the 23-year- old from Beloit, Wis., anticipated, but that one month changed her from someone known in the open- wheel racing community to someone who nearly everyone knew. She sat on the front row for the famed race, led with seven laps to go and finished fourth, the highest finish for a female racer in the Indy 500. LOS ANGELES — Instant celebrity can be ungrateful, nerve-racking and stressful. It can also be wonderful. Danica Patrick celebrated both this season, thanks to one month at fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What happened was that Patrick, who had previously raced in Champ Car’s feeder Toyota-Atlantic series, seemed to be the highlight of the month of May. She had the fastest practice time of the month and then almost pulled off what many considered the unthinkable, winning the 500. Women have won feeder-series races before, but never a major event, especially one like the Indianapolis 500. “The first thing I thought about was the cover of Sports Illustrated,’ she recalled. “I thought, I didn’t win the race. I know that, so why am I on the cover? The exposure, the amount of interest of media from different venues, the TV shows I did, from being pretty much the fastest car all month, I woulda, coulda, shoulda in the whole qualifying thing, running up front and leading at the end, breaking the female record for leading … When you add all these things up, it was a great story. That’s my justification.’ And then things changed. Dramatically. Suddenly, Patrick wasn’t a rookie driver trying to find her ground in the IRL. She was wanted by everybody. By the media, by advertisers, by the fans, who lined up in droves during the required autograph sessions (she signed as many as 500 autographs in one hour). She was on the Late Show with David Letterman (coincidentally, one of her team’s owners) not once, but twice. “Boy, what a difference a year makes,’ she said. “It is a lot harder to move around in the world. People recognize me a little bit. I don’t think anyone can understand what it is like until you are there. It can be weird, but there have been a lot of wonderful things and opportunities that have happened because of it, so I’m not going to be one of those people who sits here and say it’s not fair. There have been a lot of wonderful, wonderful things that I can do because of what happened, because of my exposure.’ Patrick said she took that exposure, which brought her nervousness and stress, and channeled it back into racing. “Where I wanted to be for myself this year, especially after Indy, is that nothing took away from the race. I made it quite clear on the things that did not happen. It was a year nobody expected and none of us were ready for what happened. I think we did a great job of accommodating all the situations.’ At the beginning of the year the IRL had targeted Patrick as one of six drivers to be spotlighted during the season. But after Indy, she was on practically every conference call, and then tracks began telling people in advertisements not that the IRL would be in town, but Danica would be. Drivers from the Andretti-Green team boycotted an autograph session to protest “Danica Mania.’ Team Rahal-Letterman spokesman Brent Maurer says the IRL never promoted Patrick over the other drivers; it was the individual tracks. And she was placed on the league’s weekly media teleconference calls more often, he said, because of the media’s demand. “Their issue was more with with the series or with the tracks who organized the autograph sessions,’ Patrick said. “They one-by-one at Milwaukee came up to me and said, `This has nothing to do with you.’ All I do is show up. Brent says, `Come on let’s go,’ I say, `OK.’ I have definitely done everything that I can fit in my life, fit in a weekend schedule. I have probably done more for the series than the team. It’s been a lot.’ Patrick says she can still go places. Yet, despite not having a podium finish this year (she was also fourth in Japan and has already clinched the series’ Rookie of the Year honors), things have changed. “What I miss is the patience on bad days,’ she said. “When you are more popular, people are looking harder and they’re looking constantly. You know, I am human and I have bad days just like everybody. I get sick just like everybody else gets sick. It’s your job and you want to do the best you can, but you’re only human and I think that one of the hardest things is that people expect more from you. Sometimes, that can be frustrating. I haven’t gotten to the point personally where going to the grocery store isn’t possible, stops my whole day or I get scared of somebody or something.’ What she wants to do is prove that she can win and justify all the hype surrounding her. But it’s hard, she says, when cars are not right, or don’t perform well in traffic; something that has been a Rahal-Letterman problem this season. “I hope to do great things that float out of the water,’ she said. “But I don’t know that, There will always be a first for things and people will remember the first. I am sure (the Indy 500) will hit home much later on. It’s difficult when you’re in the middle of it and difficult when you expect even more. Settling with what has happened is not what I want to do. I am pleased with it, but all I think about is I could have won.’ Which is what she hopes for Sunday. “I’m sad to see the year come to an end because it has been amazing. It is one that I will never forget. But it does not mean there cannot be a better one.’ Keith Lair can be reached at (626) 962-8811, Ext. 2272, or by e-mail at [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!center_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week “Danica Mania’ swept the nation. Tracks promoted their Indy Racing League events with advertisements that proclaimed, “Danica’s coming!’ Her rookie season, which ends Sunday at California Speedway in Fontana with the Indy Toyota 400, has seemed like a whirlwind romance, a wedding and a marital spat all rolled into nine months. Those who do not follow open- wheel racing took notice. Television ratings for the 500 were higher than for the NASCAR Nextel Cup race later that night. Her picture was plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first time an Indy 500 participant had been on SI’s cover in 20 years. She was on the cover of numerous newspapers and magazines and she was a featured driver at every subsequent race. “I always had large dreams, aspirations and visions,’ she said. “I did not think this thing was impossible. I did not think it would never happen. But I don’t think anything could have prepared me for exactly what would go on and exactly how I would feel, “But then, being a huge story, being able to change, or to just really help the series and help it grow, and (for me to) turn some heads, I knew if I got the right opportunity with the right team and with the right car, that if I went out there and did well, it would be a huge story. It happened.’ last_img