Life Now Bunnies And Rainbows For Danica

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 7 2009
Danica Patrick and her Indy 500 rookie of the year award.  

Danica Patrick and her Indy 500 rookie of the year award.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Back in the arena where Danicamania was launched in 2005, IndyCar driver Danica Patrick says she continues to rely on a close network of family and friends to keep her superstar self “grounded.”

Then again, Danica also says…don’t overlook the wisdom of the fortune cookie.

“Here we are at Indy,” Patrick said during a teleconference earlier this week previewing the 93rd Indianapolis 500. “I have to tell you a funny story. I got a fortune cookie at the track (Kansas Speedway). We went out to dinner in Kansas at this sort of Asian sushi place (STIX). I had two fortunes in there, to start with. I didn’t realize it had a second one. When I turned it over, it says, ‘A four-wheeled adventure will soon bring you happiness.’

“So that’s in a fortune cookie, right? That’s got to be great.”

As omens for the Month of May go…that cookie definitely beats an email from a barrister in Greater Accra-Ghana offering a share of an unclaimed $18.5-million inheritance.

Still, when rain washed out the first scheduled open practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Wednesday, Patrick took the delay in stride. It is a measure of her comfort level on the 2.5-mile rectangle. Outside of her breakthrough victory for Andretti Green Racing at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan in April 2008, IMS has been Danica’s grandest stage.

Patrick, then driving for Rahal Letterman Racing, set a number of records as an Indy 500 rookie in 2005. She qualified and finished fourth, the highest starting/finishing stats posted by a woman in event history. She also became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 – three times for a total of 19 laps. She stirred the usual 300,000-plus fans into a frenzy by taking the lead from eventual winner Dan Wheldon on a Lap 189 restart, only to slow in a bid to conserve fuel. Wheldon retook the lead on Lap 194…and spent the rest of the season reminding the open-wheel community that he actually won the bloody Indy 500.

Patrick, 27, struggles to explain her affinity for IMS, where she has qualified in the top-10 in all four of her starts and finished in the top 10 in three of four. “I don’t really know,” said Patrick, driver of the No. 7 Motorola Dallara/Honda. “I like it here. I enjoy it. I embrace the month. I have a lot of fun. 

“It’s an interesting place. It’s different from every other track really because it’s the kind of place that if the car isn’t right, you cannot make it go fast. You can’t hustle it around. You just can’t make it do it. If you do, quickly the car gets out of control and the track bites you. We’re going faster here than anywhere else. I think it’s really the one place that we go that the track is sort of a little bit bigger and more powerful than you are. And I think that that makes it really something that you have to respect. 

“So, I took advice from the veterans in the beginning. I wanted to know, and I still want to know. I still ask opinions about what do I need to know about here? What do I need to remember for the race? Everybody kept saying, ‘You need to respect the track.’ I think that’s where it comes in. If the car isn’t good, don’t think you can overcome it. Then I think to be patient in the race. I think that really showed in that first year where I went from the front to the back to the front to the back to the front all in the course of the 500 miles. So being patient is also another really key thing around here.” 

Patrick – teammate to Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Hideki Mutoh at AGR – also cited the amount of practice time leading up to Saturday’s Pole Day qualifications as a huge advantage.

“It’s a good opportunity to really just focus on qualifying,” said Patrick, who qualified third last month at Kansas Speedway, the only oval event contested among the season’s first three. “All the rest of the year we tend to not really be so heavily focused on it, and we kind of do maybe a qualifying practice run or two. 

“It’s about getting the car comfortable. You really want the car comfortable when it has more downforce on it. As you trim it out, the balance changes maybe a little bit, but really you want to start out with a good balanced car, and hopefully you can even take the downforce off and just get faster.” 

Patrick finished fifth on the 1.5-mile Kansas oval, and stands sixth in series points.

“I felt really good about my oval race in Kansas,” said Patrick, one of only four drivers with at least two top-five finishes in the season’s first three events. “The racing was close. I was pushing. I was happy. I was one of the first people to jump up high at the beginning of the race and pass around the outside. That was one of the things we worked really hard to get to.” 

Her early season success, Patrick said, has allowed a kindler/gentler side of Danica to play out for the viewers on Versus. 

“I hope I’m not boring anybody,” said Patrick, whose season got off to a thud because of contact with Brazilian Raphael Matos and a 19th-place result on the streets at St. Petersburg, Fla. Too, the camera previously has recorded Danica’s celebrated outbursts with Wheldon and Ryan Briscoe and Milka Duno. 

“I’ve learned from the past,” Patrick said. “Look, the emotional Danica is still there, but there’s a time and a place. The time and place is not every weekend. So it’s just easier. I think I always felt in the past like I had to prove to people that I cared and that I wasn’t happy being fifth or 12th or something by being mad. It just doesn’t really pay off, and it turns people off. It’s a lot easier and a lot more fun to be relaxed. It’s all bunnies and rainbows around here.” 

Patrick also acknowledged her place as role model for any number of young ladies, many of whom have been named Danica _ Slavic for “morning star” _ by parents disguised as fans. 

“In the decision-making process when it comes to doing articles or interviews or photo shoots or anything,” Patrick said, “I do think about what’s good and what’s bad and what’s right and what’s wrong, kind of just where I want to take my brand and what direction I want to go with it.

I always do the things that I really want to do and have fun with. If I’m on the fence about it, or if it’s really not going to be good for image, then we just don’t do them.” 

For reinforcement of that fact, there is Danica’s recent selection to “Time 100: The World’s Most Influential People” list. Patrick earned the No. 93 position, outpolling talk show icon Oprah Winfrey, CBS News anchor Katie Couric, Fox News cable host Bill O’Reilly, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

It’s very nice,” said Patrick, whose occupational profile listed her as Racy Driver. “There was voting for it. Just with all the other things that I’ve done outside of the car and inside the car, it’s making a difference.”

However, that doesn’t necessarily excuse Danica from the more mundane aspects of daily life… like her running and weight-training regimen…or laundry…or cooking scallops…or shopping at Best Buy. The nagging reality checks –grounding – are delivered by husband Paul Hospenthal and parents T.J. and Bev Patrick.

Yeah, I think I’m predominantly speaking about my family and the people closest to me that see me every day and help me every day, are a part of it all, know me for a long time,” Patrick said. “They’re the ones that say, ‘Look, you need to get out there and you need to sign (autographs), or you need to calm down, you need to do this.’ They don’t let me just be the boss. They’re not ‘yes’ people. They’re my family, and they’re my closest friends. They’re helping me be the best that I can be.

“I think that that’s really what I mean when I say people that have helped keep me ‘grounded.’ They just really are trying to help me be the best me.”  

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 7 2009
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