Story and photo by Patrick Reynolds
Danica Patrick’s driving career came to a close at the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500.
The ten-foot view is that she crashed out of the race. To me, the 10,000 foot view broadens beyond the race on this day and raises the question of what she meant to the sport of auto racing.
I was never a Patrick fan nor was I ever a Patrick basher, but I will offer an honest assessment of her career after watching thousands of others chase trophies for over four decades.
Patrick was a good race car driver, but not a great race car driver. I have mad respect for every driver running in the Indy 500. The driver running in 33rd place is still pretty good and those that understand how difficult competing on the professional racing level is will grasp that.
Her statistics are average and does not correspond to her being a household name. If I were to print her resume, cover her name, lay it on a table, and then simply list her on-track accomplishments in front of anyone- knowledgeable of racing or not- the results would be met with a shrug.
Please don’t misunderstand me; her resume is not bad at all. She has multiple good finishes and one race win. That single Indycar victory is certainly more than I have. But on paper in the grand scheme of any race driver’s career, it does not shine.
Let’s call racing what it is- a male-dominated sport. There are absolutely no rules written that state only men can compete. Indycar and NASCAR fields are wide open to anyone. There are plenty of qualified males that never get the opportunity and even fewer females.
The motorsports sector was critical of her 2005 Sports Illustrated cover following her fourth-place Indy finish in her 500 debut. The late Dan Wheldon actually won the race and his photo was shrunk into the cover’s corner. If we want Patrick to be treated equally- which I believe that we all should- then let’s do that.
Would a fourth place Indy 500 finisher receive the cover? She received the recognition because she is female. Men and women should be treated as equals. If equality is true, then I challenge anyone to cite a Sports illustrated issue with a fourth-place Indy 500 finisher featured on the cover.
By the same token, Patrick is not on the editorial staff at S.I. She has always strived to do the best job on the track in performance and off track for her sponsors. Her cover photo in a well-recognized national magazine that infrequently covered auto racing did well for her brand and corporate backers.
Sam Hornish is not a household name. Patrick is. Hornish won the Indianapolis 500, 18 other Indycar event wins- tying him with Jimmy Bryan on the all-time win list- and three Indycar championships. Patrick has a single win on the Montegi oval in Japan. Hornish made the jump to NASCAR Cup racing and was a mid-pack runner on average. Patrick made the jump to NASCAR too and it was an unflattering career. Hornish had strong Indycar credentials when he shifted his career focus to NASCAR. Patrick had but a fraction of his qualifications.
Her move to dabble in stock cars began with an ARCA start in 2011. Patrick raced in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2012 and went Cup racing full-time in 2013. This was the beginning of the stock car chapters of her career which, if gauged by on-track performance, were a bust.
In the Xfinity Series she was often the first driver interviewed on ESPN- which as an aside provided horrible NASCAR coverage- when she finished outside the top-25. Winners and top-five drivers were next in line following the Patrick interview.
From a race fan’s point of view, I understand their animosity. However, much like the infamous Sports Illustrated cover, this was not her doing. She has no control over who a network decides to interview or when her comments will be part of a telecast.
In a field of 20 for an Indycar race or a field of 40 for a NASCAR Cup race, the driver running last is still better than a many of your weekly short track or weekend road racing competitors. She was often around tenth in a 20-pack Indycar race. She was often found between 20th and 30th in a 40-car NASCAR Cup field.
Where exactly is the story with Danica Patrick? She is not the first female driver in the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500, so she cannot be considered a pioneer. She was, however the most competitive woman at Indianapolis and finished eighth in the 2013 Daytona 500.
She had good equipment in Indycar with Rahal Letterman Racing and Andretti Autosport and then Stewart Haas Racing in NASCAR.
Simona de Silvestro and Johanna Long are arguably better drivers in Indycars and stock car respectively, but much like the very talented males that fall short, opportunity is often accompanied by money, and sometimes even the very best don’t get a long-term contract in winning equipment. Long in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series and De Silvestro in Indycar appeared to get more out of lesser equipment then Patrick in her race-winning capable rides.
Through Patrick’s single visit to Victory Lane in Japan, her marketing machine was head-and-shoulders above most sports figures.
Patrick was a marketing story that never blossomed into a sports story.
A comparison can be made about her career impact and place in auto racing history. That story lies within the walls of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC.
Drivers such as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have statistics to back up their Hall inductions without question or even batting an eye.
Wendell Scott was inducted into NASCAR’s Hall in 2015 but he certainly did not have anywhere near the statistics of Petty or Earnhardt.
An equal question that can be asked about Scott, Petty, and Earnhardt is “What did they contribute to the sport?”
The equal answer for all three men is “plenty.”
I will ask that same question of Patrick. “What did she contribute to the sport?”
The answer is also the same.
What did she do?
She brought a lot of eyes to auto racing. They are plenty of people who know that she is a race car driver. She brought herself and the sport to mainstream America. Some of those people may not be able to tell the difference between the NASCAR racer and the Indycar machine if they were parked side-by-side from each other, but hey… those people know who Patrick is.
Auto racing cannot… can… not… survive without sponsorship.
Patrick brought that too. She also brought eyes and ears to speedways in trying times. Her career began to skyrocket at a difficult time- during the Champ Car/ IRL spilt which was still three years away from being resolved and at the peak of NASCAR, which was about to begin its downward trend in popularity. Her marketing savvy brought dollars and attention to two styles of racing that needed it.
She displayed a hard-nosed racer attitude- the kind I loved in A.J. Foyt.
One of my favorite things to do is Google old “A.J. Foyt mad” videos. His tirades are entertaining and provide a good laugh. Foyt is loved for showing his raw and honest emotion on the spot.
Patrick can display a similar attitude but often gets criticized as a “whiner.” She is the victim of a clear double standard.
Where the line crosses between a passionate driver and a good example for children to follow is blurred.
I would love to see a young racer drive like Foyt, but did Foyt’s attitude provide a good example for children? Does Kyle Busch’s attitude? Does Patrick’s?
Petty’s was the attitude that I would want a young driver to follow. Darn near perfection. Can we expect that from others?
Patrick set an example for young girls, and actually anyone, to follow their dreams.
Patrick said, “The ability to affect people and inspire people is really powerful and I’ve never overlooked it and I’ve never been an athlete that says ‘I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t want it’. I honor it and I try to do a good job with it.”
Danica Patrick did not have the on-track results that anyone, especially her, could be satisfied with. She was competitive, drove her heart out, and made a successful brand out of her name. She will never be known as a huge race and championship winner, but she will be known as a hero and example to others who face challenges and long odds to achieve all that they can.
Congratulations, Danica on what you did accomplish and good for you for going after what many others wish they could.
What did Danica Patrick mean to the sport of auto racing?
Anyone that inspires young people to be courageous, take chances, chase dreams, and do… more with their lives… is good in my book.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report live on Facebook Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT and uploaded on http://speedwayreport.wpengine.com/ . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.