Danica Patrick’s trailblazing legacy outweighs her career results

Rusty Jarrett/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

I was only 11 years old when Danica Patrick made her Verizon IndyCar Series debut in March 2005 – flying around the same Homestead-Miami Speedway track where she announced her impending retirement amid tears on Friday afternoon. She’ll step aside from racing after two final runs in 2018: the Daytona 500 and, fittingly, the Indianapolis 500.

Patrick, then 22, created quite the stir in that rookie season, earning three poles and improbably contending for a win in the Indianapolis 500 before finishing a strong fourth.

As quickly as she’d entered the sport, the Roscoe, Illinois native became a superstar.

At the time, I couldn’t understand it.

She hadn’t won a race – at least not yet. Nor had she managed a single podium in her debut season. But for some reason she suddenly became one of the most popular drivers in America, if not the world. Confused, I asked my parents about her newfound fame, only to be treated with an answer I didn’t expect.

“It’s because she’s a woman, son,” my mother told me at the time, an inkling of pride in her voice. “And no female has done this before.”

Over the years I’ve come to understand what my parents meant, but at the time little Aaron couldn’t wrap his head around this concept.

The historian that I was, I knew that people like Janet Guthrie and Patty Moise had ushered in female drivers long before Patrick. I’d already played as a woman – Shawna Robinson – in a NASCAR video game courtesy of her appearance in “NASCAR Thunder 2003”, and fellow talented females Sarah Fisher and Erin Crocker were each fighting to make a name for themselves in the upper echelons of American motorsport at the same time as Patrick.

To me Danica Patrick was just another driver. I was young – with an innocent, fragile mind. I didn’t understand how she could possibly be different.

Years later, it all makes sense.


As my childish brain quickly realized, Patrick was far from the first female to compete in motorsports. But while she may not have been the groundbreaker, she quickly became the most marketable and mainstream female driver in motorsports history.

Aided in part by her attractiveness, charisma and marketability, and bolstered by her success on INDYCAR’s biggest stages, Patrick became the closest thing to a household name the INDYCAR paddock had seen since Michael Andretti. Where other females had found success solely within the motorsports world, Patrick had worldwide appeal.

Her legacy was cemented forever in her fourth INDYCAR season, when on April 20, 2008, she became the first female to win a race in the open wheel series at Twin Ring Motegi Superspeedway in Japan.

She had already proven to be a competent, successful driver prior to that point – tallying three podiums for what was then Andretti Green Racing in the season prior. But while those strong runs increased Danica’s star power, it was the win in Japan that elevated her to superstar status.

Most of America had heard of Patrick in the Indy 500, but the Motegi win made her name stick worldwide. She didn’t win another race that year, or in her final three INDYCAR seasons. But it didn’t matter. Her legacy was set.

By the time Patrick came to NASCAR and stock car racing in the early 2010s she had nothing more to prove. But that didn’t stop her from showing occasional glimpses of potential.

Danica Patrick has never won in NASCAR, though she’s proven capable of putting together occasional strong runs. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Patrick never won in the XFINITY (then Nationwide) Series, though she did come close. While driving full-time for JR Motorsports in 2012, she dominated the early stages of a race at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve only to hit a shoe thrown onto the track by an inconsiderate fan, damaging her machine and forcing her to the garage for repairs.

The 35-year-old’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career has never yielded the fruit many were hoping for, with just seven top 10s in 189 starts. Save for one bright moment in her improbable 2013 Daytona 500 pole run, Patrick has spent most of the past five seasons toiling around mid-pack with occasional bursts speed for Stewart-Haas Racing en-route to an average finish between 22nd and 24th.

But in the end Patrick’s results aren’t what define her as a driver, particularly in NASCAR. It’s her motivation and inspiration to females and fans worldwide that matter most as she prepares to hang up her helmet for the final time.

Nearly every form of motorsport has at least one female chasing speed and victories in the modern era.

Courtney Force-Rahal and sister Brittany Force are each successful NHRA drag racers – the latter driver being this season’s Top Fuel dragster champion. Females including Tatiana Calderón and Marta Garcia have caught the eye of owners and manufacturers in Formula racing.

USAC saw it’s eighth female champion this year in Indiana’s Jessica Bean, and Holly Shelton proved capable of battling for the win in her strongest days on the USAC National Midget championship with Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports.

Drivers like Pippa Mann and Ayla Agren continue to chase their dreams in Indy cars, and women including Julia Landauer, Nicole Behar, Natalie Decker and Dominique van Wieringen have battled their way around short tracks nationwide to try to work their way into NASCAR. Landauer ran the full K&N Pro Series West tour this year for Sunrise Ford Racing, while Decker will compete full-time for Venturini Motorsports in the ARCA Racing Series next season.

In a world full of gender segregation in nearly every level and style of sport, auto racing has become a rare bastion for gender equality, where women have a chance to compete alongside men, and have proven every bit capable of besting the their male counterparts on their best days.

Patrick accomplished the feat at Motegi. Kenzie Ruston Hemric managed the same in Super Late Models at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2011, and earlier this year 24-year-old Amber Balcaen became the first Canadian woman to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race.

Each of the above women have proven themselves to be competent drivers behind the wheel, with the talent necessary to compete in the upper echelons of motorsport. But without Patrick’s star power helping to blaze a trail for increased gender diversity in the sport, there’s a chance that one or more of them wouldn’t be where they are today.

Patrick is one of three major NASCAR stars set to retire from full-time competition after Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, joining Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth.

Each driver rests among the sport’s most notable names, but Patrick is perhaps the most important of all.

If Kenseth earned the appeal of the hardcore fan, and Earnhardt the attention of American pop culture, it was Patrick that found traction in unique circles both in America and worldwide, particularly among young women that were looking for role models in the sports lexicon.

The wins and championships never came. But with her inspiring work ethic and never-give-up attitude, Patrick still inspired a generation of females and fans, proving that that they, too could accomplish their dreams with effort, even in male-dominated fields like motorsports.

The time may come someday when auto racing is seen as a hub for all types of diversity – where women are as consistent a presence at the front of the field as men.

But until that time comes – and perhaps even after it – Patrick’s talent, perseverance and staying power are traits worth celebrating, remembering and teaching to future generations.

2 Comments

  1. Al Torney

    November 18, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    No one seems to want to say it but I will. We have a woman who came to NASCAR with all of these supposed great credentials with a big money sponsor on a top rated team. By any standard she failed to even come close to the hype she received. She may have inspired women but I have to wonder what NASCAR team owners will think about bringing another woman driver on board after witnessing Patrick’s poor performance. Everyone ignores the facts that she had The same Hendrick engines and chassis’ as her team mates. Her only claim to success is the Daytona pole which very few even consider legit. Her win in Indy Car was on fuel mileage. I have nothing against her but I am a realist. She didn’t even run in the top twenty most of the time. In fact i’d Like to see a count of how many races she received lucky dogs and wave arounds. I’d bet it was at least 75% of them. I do give her credit for being able to drive fast. One only has to look at her records to see she made no progress over the five years. In fact her fifth year may in fact be her poorest in Cup. She did prove that being attractive and good at marketing have absolutely no relation to being a good Stock car racer.

    • Michel Lelievre

      November 19, 2017 at 2:12 pm

      So tell us why in 75% of the practices or races her car was under powered from 3 MPH to close to 10 MPH.Why did SHR take her crew chief Gibson to give him to Harvick and even switched her tire changer because cry baby Harvick didn’t like his. Why couldn’t her crew chief Bill Scott have her car close to speed for every race so Danica didn’t have to fight her way up the field constantly. How many times her pit-crew screw up making her lose 2 to 4 positions coming out of a pit stop almost every time. How many drivers send her in the wall including her boss Tony Stewart twice in his final year. Dale Earnhart Jr even crashed her knowing he had no brakes and rammed her in the rear and at Watson Glen when he cut across a turn an rammed her. But the worst one was Gilliland that even being laps down kept charging into her making her multiple DNF’s.The way i saw most races is that the good old boys (red necks,male chauvinist)put a target on her to take her out of races.Then don’t forget that her own team mate put her down on his car radio (Clint Bowyer).SHR made sure she wouldn’t be successful by giving her a crew that didn’t belong there in the first place with under performing cars. So Mr Al Torney before putting some one down and criticizing their performance go walk a mile in Danica’s shoes before passing judgement.You couldn’t even do half what she has accomplished with all the obstacles she had to go threw.

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