Danica: More Diva Than Driver, Part 1

The sometimes salacious, truly tiresome Danica Patrick saga is now over a decade old, lasting from its inception in 2005 to at least the present day. While parts of it haven’t been pretty, other parts certainly were. Danica may not be much of a race car driver, but she’s commendable for making the most of her career through skillful use of her um, assets.

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Photo from si.com

It’s not that she’s just another pretty face, though. Born in 1982 in Roscoe, Illinois Danica’s raced nearly her entire life. The diminutive thirty two year old has been competing at the big league level for ten years now – all one hundred pounds of her. Between IndyCar and NASCAR, she has nearly two hundred major league racing starts under her belt and exactly one win. The one victory occurred over six years ago in a little noticed late night IndyCar race in a land far, far away. That’s a .52 % career winning percentage in case you’re counting, which obviously is not a very attractive little number.

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Photo from autosport.com

Danica burst onto the IndyCar scene in 2005, soaking up the adoring press she generated and turning heads like a wet t-shirt contestant at a tent revival. Her national fame swelled to C-cup proportions at Indianapolis where she made history in leading laps as a rookie. An attractive young female racer who continually gained throngs of new fans and admirers, she also received the ire of competitors who were clearly jealous of the unparalleled media coverage the rookie garnered. Many forget she also led laps at Japan and Chicagoland that year and finished fourth at both Japan and Indianapolis. In a promising inaugural campaign Danica achieved six top ten finishes in sixteen starts, earning Rookie of the Year honors for both the Indy 500 and the season.

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Photo from si.com

The speedy siren also landed the Sports Illustrated cover after Indianapolis, further irking the more established and proven drivers in the field. In a televised interview after winning the Indianapolis 500, the late Dan Wheldon absolutely went off on Patrick. Asked about her extensive media exposure and whether it overshadowed his 500 victory, Wheldon unconvincingly told ESPN “I don’t care. Who gives a shit, really? I mean, so it’s SI – right there,  I mean if you were owner of SI, there are thirty three people in the Indianapolis 500, one of ‘ems hot and female why wouldn’t you put ‘em on the front? You’d be crazy not to, right?” The English racer then added tersely, “I have the self-satisfaction of just winning the biggest race in the world. Fine by me. . . . In ten years down the road, no one’s gonna remember the media attention the fourth place person got.”

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Photo from usatoday.com

Danica experienced a bit of a sophomore slump on track the next year – her last with the struggling Rahal Letterman Racing – failing to lead a lap all year but finishing fourth at both Nashville and Milwaukee. The fawning national media treated her as though she were a female AJ Foyt setting the world afire. Danica had eight top ten finishes in only fourteen races that season but didn’t come close to winning. In fresh surroundings she bounced back in 2007 leading four races and landing on the podium three times, finishing second at Detroit and third at both Texas and Nashville. She finished in the top ten an impressive eleven times in seventeen starts and carried momentum into the 2008 season, her fourth in IndyCar and second with her new team Andretti Autosport.

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In her fiftieth IndyCar start Danica finally broke through with a victory. The general feeling among many in and around the series was one of relief rather than exhilaration once the facts had finally caught up with the phenomenon. She won the third race of 2008, taking the lead with three laps to go as most of those ahead of her pitted in an otherwise forgettable fuel mileage contest on a mountainside in Motegi, Japan. The few Americans who saw the race thirteen time zones away watched it very late at night and went to bed shocked at the result. She led only the final three laps but prevailed to become the first woman in history to win a major league race on a closed race course. The press attention Danica’s win birthed was unprecedented in its scope for IndyCar, lasting for months and years, easily overshadowing the recent announcement of the end of IndyCar’s version of the Great Schism.

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Photo from si.com

It seemed all the press’s previous glowing coverage of her was now somehow justified as they congratulated themselves, basking in their role of diva-driver queen-makers. She’d already posed in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and was arguably the most recognized (or is it over-exposed?) driver in the world, a true celebrity phenomenon by this point in her career. Starring appearances in extremely pricey and widely discussed Super Bowl ads weren’t far off. The win in Japan proved to be the high water mark of her racing career so far however, as she went on that year to lead only one more lap with high finishes of fifth at Nashville and Sonoma, and a total of nine top ten showings in eighteen starts. Her record didn’t get much better over the next  six years, despite what you may have read.

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Photo from usatoday.com

In 2009 she did respectably well, finishing third at Indy and fourth at Long Beach and turning in five top fives and ten top tens in seventeen races. While she led laps at Texas and Kentucky and showed some consistency, she really wasn’t a threat to win all year. The next year she achieved second place finishes at Texas and Homestead, but managed only eight top ten finishes in seventeen starts including fifth place in Japan.

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Photo from si.com

By then the rumors of her leaving for NASCAR raged in the press, again irritating many in the Indycar paddock. Apparently some in the series thought they couldn’t live with her and couldn’t live without her. Having learned their lesson, this time around her fellow drivers muted their displeasure with Danica and her departure, generally voicing it off the record rather than publicly through the press as before. Few in the media ever noted her unremarkable record during a seven year IndyCar career and instead stayed on the Danica bandwagon as it swerved toward NASCAR.

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Photo from autoevolution.com

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