Patrick Takes High-Speed Celebrity Road One Last Time

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 27 2018

Danica Patrick changed the sport of auto racing. On Sunday, she takes her final bow. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Is Danica Patrick a racing pioneer? Yes. Did Danica Patrick push the envelope when it comes to creating opportunities for women in racing? Oh, yeah. Did she fulfill her talent? Sorry, but no.

As the only journalist who has written an unauthorized biography of Patrick, I think I’m well situated to comment on her final Indy 500 and final race. She could win on Sunday, I am persuaded, but only if all the cards fell her way, which is usually unlikely in the 500-mile race at America’s pavilion of speed.

My complaint with Patrick not fulfilling her talent concerns her decision to leave Indy-style racing to pursue stock car racing. Such a switch had not worked for former champion Indy drivers like Dario Franchitti nor Sam Hornish, Jr., even with the best of teams. Why would Patrick and her agency believe that a switch would somehow work for her?

Had she stayed in Indy cars, Patrick would have had regular shots at winning the Indy 500, where the ultra-high speed and demands on handling play to her strengths as a driver. The track is not unlike the Twin Ring Motegi circuit where she posted her lone Indy Racing League victory – fast and dangerous. (And puh-leeze, give me a break on the fuel mileage deal; that takes talent and skill, too.)

Like many others, I was convinced of Patrick’s talent after watching her first qualifying session as a rookie at Indy in 2005, a four-lap run that became legendary. Despite an error entering Turn 1 on her first flying lap, she risked it all by correcting, which had everyone wincing about the possible outcome, then applauding once she had pulled it off. Patrick went on to four laps that were successively faster and good

Thirty-three cars will take to the most famous race track in the world on Sunday. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

enough for fourth on the grid, including the fastest lap in qualifying that day of 229.422 mph. Her performance raised a lot of eyebrows. But then came the race, where she finished fourth after leading in the late going, hence the birth of Danica Mania with a young, self-described northern Illinois goober in the middle of it.

Sure, Patrick lucked out several ways. First, the Panoz chassis was faster down the straight than the Dallaras that composed the majority of the field due to an undertray that was legal at the time – and a clever response to rules changes in the wake of Tony Renna’s fatal crash during Indy testing in 2003. Buddy Rice had won with a Panoz chassis in 2004 for Rahal Letterman Racing. When Rice got injured in a practice crash in 2005, suddenly rookie Patrick was elevated to the most important driver at RLR, despite the subsequent arrival of Kenny Brack as Rice’s replacement.

In the race, Patrick caused a caution under yellow in a rookie mistake, then benefitted from that scenario while two other drivers crashed out. But she never lost her cool and remained determined she could win the race. Pit strategy – evolving from the caution she brought out that damaged her front wing – eventually meant Dan Wheldon was the winner as Patrick had to hold on at the finish due to pit stop and fuel mileage concerns. But given the opportunity on a re-start, she had passed Wheldon in Turn 1 under green with 11 laps to go.

Patrick got close with a front-line team in 2005 on both talent, luck and winning equipment in terms of the Panoz chassis. So why not believe she could eventually win the race if she continued to compete in it with a front-line team? Several other rookie of the year winners in the modern era have done it, beyond those who actually won the race in their rookie year such as Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves.

Patrick’s strong suits are comfort with ultra-high speed and absolute confidence if a car is set up to her liking – as demonstrated at Indy in her rookie year. (The Israeli air force determined that women handle higher g-loads better than men due to bone density, but that’s another story. Certainly, it worked for Shirley Muldowney in drag racing.) Patrick’s less strong suits are car set-up (she needs a smart engineer) and tracks where downforce is more important than low drag and high speed. Her strong suits put her in rarified company – the sort that can win the Indy 500 – although you’d be hard pressed to win a bet on her to win at Long Beach.

Given these expectations in an Indy car, it’s a tricky formula to pursue full-season deals with a team and sponsor. I don’t claim to be privy to the inner workings of Patrick and her agents when she decided to leave the Indy Racing League and the Andretti Autosport team for Stewart-Haas Racing in NASCAR. But since 2005, it has seemed pretty clear that Patrick could leverage herself to reach arrangements with both teams and sponsors that suited her. She chose NASCAR.

NASCAR, of course, did not suit Patrick, it goes without saying. She kept trying a worn-out formula, which was “give me a car I’m comfortable with.”  On a low-downforce, high-speed track like Indy or Twin Ring Motegi, a driver can actually get a car that’s relatively comfortable – albeit at very high speeds. But no driver in NASCAR who wins a race is comfortable with the car set-up and instead has to finesse speed by whatever means. It’s the nature of stock cars. So, Patrick spent six seasons trying to get comfortable to no avail.

Here we are almost seven years after the switch and Patrick is running her last Indy 500 before pursuing a career as a fitness, nutrition and cooking guru. After earning roughly $10 million per year in NASCAR, Patrick will be able to exploit her celebrity status in this new arena as long as she might like. I think it’s a shame that she won’t continue to pursue the Indy 500 as a one-off race each year, but admittedly that’s a dicey proposition in terms of having a chance to win.

Imagine Patrick’s celebrity status if she did win the Indy 500. More so than any other accomplishment she has managed in her career, that would give pause to the male chauvinists – and pay some handsome dividends for her. Ultimately, I think Patrick opted for a higher reward and lower risk by switching horses in mid-career. As much as I may like NASCAR racing, not the stuff of drivers I admire most.  

(Editor’s note: Find Jonathan Ingram’s books at www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 27 2018
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