Danica Searching For A Comfort Level At Indy

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 3 2018

Danica Patrick took to the track this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She says she expects the Month of May to be a major challenge. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Danica Patrick says she is looking for “a fun May” in her ballyhooed return to open-wheel racing for the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. And after a seven-year hiatus from the Verizon IndyCar Series and an underwhelming NASCAR Cup Series career, Patrick equates “fun” with “being relevant.”

“Oh, I remember watching the Indy 500 the first year I wasn’t in it and I missed it. I remember that feeling,” Patrick said Wednesday after participating in a manufacturer test for Chevrolet around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “As time wore on, I missed that relevancy of being in the game and being someone like before the race of, ‘Who do you think is going to win today?’ My name did not pop up in NASCAR.

“Then that first Daytona 500 when I was on the pole (2013), and other than that most of the races weren’t like that. I missed being relevant, so I’m going to try to be that here this month. It’s going to be hard because everybody is really good and I wasn’t for a while. The car seems like it has some good, natural speed and we’re not really pressing the issues too much. So, just again, build confidence and not break it today and come back in a couple weeks and see where we go.”

Patrick completed her veteran refresher test Tuesday around the 2.5-mile IMS oval, clearing the way for her to practice beginning on May 15 for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The race on May 27 is being billed as the finale of a career that took Patrick from open-wheel superstardom to star-crossed underperformer in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series.

Competing as an Indy 500 rookie for team-owner Bobby Rahal in 2005, Patrick

Dan Wheldon, bottom, and Danica Patrick went wheel to wheel late in the 2009 Indy 500. Patrick finished a historic third. (File photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)

started fourth and became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 en route to recording a fourth-place finish behind first-time winner Dan Wheldon. Patrick still holds the record for highest finish by a woman competitor, third in 2009.

Her crossover marketing appeal eventually steered Patrick and “Danicamania” to NASCAR, a period that peaked with that pole-winning lap for the 2013 season-opening Daytona 500. Patrick became the first woman to qualify P1 in NASCAR’s premier national touring series and also posted the best-ever finish by a woman in “The Great American Race” in eighth. Patrick’s Cup career wound down amid turmoil in 2017, however, when she lost of her primary sponsor and officially was released from driving the No. 10 Ford Fusion by Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end.

The 36-year-old from Roscoe, Ill., admitted Tuesday she was far from comfortable in INDYCAR’s new-for-2018 universal aerodynamic Dallara chassis, citing how heavy the wheel without power steering felt despite her noted fitness routine. She logged 52 laps Tuesday in the No. 13 GoDaddy Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, with a best of 218.500 mph _ placing her sixth/last on a list of three veteran drivers completing a refresher course and three others going through the Speedway’s acclaimed Rookie Orientation Program. No speeds were issued after the manufacturer test involving Chevy and Honda, the final on-track availability on the oval prior to Indy 500 practice.

Patrick addressed several topics during a news conference. An edited transcript follows:

QUESTION: What was it like for you during the first few laps around here on Tuesday?

DANICA PATRICK: “Absolutely horrible. I felt very uncomfortable. I felt like all my workout efforts have not really been helpful because I could not turn the wheel it was so heavy. It’s much better today. The first couple laps today I got flat-out, so it’s much different today than it was yesterday.”

QUESTION: You said you wanted to get that refresher course over with so you could have fun again. You starting to have fun on Day 2?

DANICA PATRICK: “Were those my words? I said I wanted to get yesterday over with so that I could get on with the job and get comfortable and start to feel the car and

Danica Patrick says she feels at home at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

work through simple changes. So that’s what we’ve done today. The yellow came out when I first went out; I went past the start/finish line, lifted in (Turn) 1 and was flat-out through (Turns) 3 and 4 and the yellow came out, so I was feeling really good right off the bat. As soon as I went back out, I was flat-out and have been since, so everything has felt really good.

“It’s just a matter of working on little feelings I have as well as trying things, because quite honestly it feels pretty planted so it’s just small little changes and kind of feeling how the tires go over the course of the 20-some laps. There’s no point in rushing. Even sitting on pit lane after doing 20-some laps, I was like ‘Let’s be mature. Let’s go back, let’s make sure everything is where we want it to be and be methodical and come back out here.’ That’s what we did, made a couple other changes before lunch and everything is running smooth.”

QUESTION: Does it feel like home to you at IMS?

DANICA PATRICK: “It does because I’m staying at my parents’ house. So that really helps you feel like you’re at home. She is helping feed my dogs and feed me dinner and all kinds of things. It always feels like home here at Indy. The track feels so familiar. Everything from the walk to and from pit lane…I’m just waiting for the Alley Cats to show up.”

QUESTION: Is it actually a relief to have that first day back under your belt?

DANICA PATRICK: “Oh, yeah. Definitely having yesterday done felt much better. I slept much better last night. The stress of the anticipation of yesterday, and not necessarily so much of an ‘I’m so excited’ sense but ‘I’m nervous how is this going to go’ sense was weighing on me a fair amount heavier than I knew. I could see it popping up in other ways. I slept much better last night and thankfully today is running really smooth so far.

“Today was about building confidence, not breaking it, so even if all I do is drive around with really nominal changes all day and just kind of keep feeling it and feeling it, that is a successful day today because that’s building confidence and not breaking it.”

QUESTION: Does the steering wheel still feel a little heavy to you?

DANICA PATRICK: “The steering feels a tiny bit heavy. When I took off after even doing my install check yesterday, I accelerated in first gear and I was like, ‘Oh, shoot!’ It still feels heavy as you get going up to speed, but the thing is once you turn into the corner it doesn’t. It’s just that straightaway low downforce. These cars have enough downforce to drive upside down, so they have a lot of load through the wheel.

“I’m also used to power steering in stock cars and I don’t have that anymore, so all the

Adapting to the new IndyCar Series chassis, and the lack of power steering in an Indy car, represent a couple of the challenges facing Danica Patrick at Indy this month.

Indy car fans out there might find this warm and fuzzy but everyone would always ask me if I had a hard time driving those big, ol’ stock cars and if they were really physical. I was like, ‘No.’ They are way easier than an Indy car to drive.”

QUESTION: You closed-out your NASCAR career at the Daytona 500 in February. Do you feel more prepared for this race than Daytona?

DANICA PATRICK: “I would say from a preparation standpoint, on the car side with Ed and the whole team I feel more prepared on that side of things. This is a well thought-out, timed, planned, full-fledged effort. Daytona came pretty quick and the team did a great job massaging the car, and I felt we were competitive in the race. We weren’t the fastest car but we were competitive. I feel it was still a good effort, but this is one that had more time to go through the details and be prepared.”

QUESTION: How do you like driving this car, with the new universal Dallara chassis, to the one you last drove in INDYCAR?

DANICA PATRICK: “Seven years is long enough to forget what things felt like. But I will say that just the little things of helmets, belts. This isn’t a popular thing to say, but you didn’t have to run the belts that tight in stock car. You didn’t have to worry about your helmet. You didn’t have to worry about the padding that much. It was all like just fine. In INDYCAR, it’s all critical.

“You probably know the old stories of Dario (Franchitti) where he changed something a sixteenth of an inch of padding and gained two-tenths (of a second). That didn’t happen to me. But you do need those kinds of things to be comfortable. All those things are really critical, so I was much more comfortable the first time I arrived at Indy 13 years ago, but it was already on race No. 5 of the season so I had already ironed out those kinks. We’re still working through that but rest assured that when we come back here we’ll be as ready as humanly possible.”

QUESTION: You joked that you’ve returned here as a veteran, complete with gray hair. What’s up with that?

DANICA PATRICK: “I’m just not trying to go for the overall dye. We’re just like an aging group. In the drivers meeting I was last minute and the front row filled in with all the guys that I remember, and I’m like, ‘Oh, here’s the dinosaur group,’ or at least that’s what I called myself anyway. We’ve been around a while. Some longer than me.”

QUESTION: What’s been the biggest flashback you’ve experienced after being away from IMS as an open-wheel driver for so long?

DANICA PATRICK: “What I really think back to is that feeling that I had the very first time that I was here where I went out and I was like, ‘I can’t believe I am this fast. Let’s not screw it up.’ So we would be very methodical in that sort of like almost unbelievable feeling of ‘I don’t know how I’m here right now but I’m so fortunate.’ I didn’t let myself get cocky in all of that. In the beginning I was feeling super-humble. That memory of how good it was in the beginning when I drove for Bobby was…my first rookie orientation was a lot easier than yesterday.”

QUESTION: Did you get a chance to run in any traffic today?

DANICA PATRICK: “I never saw a car other than coming in and out of the pits. As far as (aerodynamic) towing goes, all that stuff I remember. If you can see a car it’s helping you. I never saw a car so speed is legitimate. Then again, seeing a car can definitely upset the car and get you much looser or tighter.”

QUESTION: What’s the chemistry like with team-owner/driver Ed Carpenter and his organization?

DANICA PATRICK:It’s been great, really great. I mean, shoot, we even worked together on working out the deal. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. He’s been really nice and easy to work with, very helpful. So it was really cool of him to be around all day (Tuesday), be there for the word of reason from time to time, like telling me, ‘You’re going to have to do all 20 laps now.’ But that was all right. I just needed to get through it.

He’s been super-helpful. Everybody at the team has been helpful. I’ve been to the shop quite a few times to get the seat made, get comfortable. Of course, there’s still some more changes in that department for how comfortable I feel with all those things, the way that the seat is cut out, my helmet, the padding and everything. But I expected that to happen.

Everybody has been really cool. Everybody has been super easy to work with. I wanted a fun May. I’m glad that they are fun and easy to work with. I think that’s also part of the deal coming together with them, is that it was very easy. I think that’s a good sign of a good group.”

QUESTION:  Why was it so important to you to come back and do this one last time?

DANICA PATRICK: “Well, last year was just kind of an odd year. With having a sponsor leave, which is a scenario I had never been in before, with not really feeling as much hope as I wanted racing. That was kind of a frustrating position to be in. And feeling kind of ready to move on but not in the way of being done at Homestead. It was, like, ‘There’s a better way to do this.’ There’s a better way to honor the run in my career as well as, you know, the fans, and especially can’t think of a better place to end than here where it all began.

I said to everyone on pit lane, ‘We need a before and after of my 2005 pit road gaggle of photographers, and 2018,’ because it felt similar. It was really a cool feeling. So just kind of really full-circle. Then, of course, with GoDaddy on the car to top it off, of all my sponsors, they’ve been by far the most known with me, the best fit overall. So it’s just a good story.”


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 3 2018
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