Indy 500: Danica is Indy’s Tiger, without the wins
By Jim Litke
Those nostalgic, sepia-drenched TV ads running all last week for the Indianapolis 500 play up the sport’s past, so let’s begin with a pop quiz: Name a winning driver from the last 15 years.
Unless you’re a gearhead, you’re sitting at a computer or you watched Helio Castroneves win “Dancing With The Stars” two seasons ago, you probably can’t.
It’s been that long since open-wheel racing topped the sporting marquee on Memorial Day weekend, and you have to go back another 15 years or so before that, to the era of Rick Mears and the Unser, Andretti and Foyt dynasties, to find a time when the average fan could ID the defending champion.
The star of the circuit today, by contrast, could hardly be more recognizable. Danica Patrick doesn’t lack page views, exposure or appeal ó or real driving skills ó just results. She’s every bit as important to open-wheel racing as Tiger Woods is to golf, except that Patrick has zero majors to his 14, and exactly one win ó 13 months ago in Japan ó to Woods’ 76 victories worldwide.
It’s been four years since she burst on the Indy Racing League scene with a dazzling fourth-place finish at the 500, and then walked off with Rookie of the Year honors. Patrick has drawn plenty of attention to herself nearly every day since, though rarely because of what she does behind a wheel. More often, she turns up on the Internet wearing practically nothing or gracing magazines ranging from Sports Illustrated to Maxim in outfits that make her formfitting race suits look like sacks by comparison.
With the decade-long civil war between Speedway boss Tony George and the drivers over, and the sport regaining some traction among TV audiences and sponsors, there’s no better time than Sunday for Patrick to remind people she’s more than just another pretty face.
“I do the ads because I’m a driver. I’m in the magazines because I’m a driver,” she said Thursday during interview sessions at the Speedway. If looks could kill, her questioner would have been zapped on the spot.
“I know what comes first,” Patrick said.
There’s no questioning her dedication or her competitive fire; there hasn’t been a reason to do that since Patrick established herself as a menace on the go-cart circuit in southern Wisconsin at age 10. She was dropped by one sponsor while racing in Europe as a teen, but showed enough savvy to find another team and continued zooming up the learning curve.
Last year, after driver Ryan Briscoe pulled out of his pit box too quickly, skidded into the back of Patrick’s car and knocked her out of the Indy 500, she went to return the favor in person. After climbing out of the car, she marched purposefully down the lane, yanked off her gloves and prepared for a second collision with Briscoe ó her fist and his face. A plainclothes security officer eventually talked her out of it, but nobody who saw the scene would doubt winning still tops her list of priorities.
Then again, it was easier for fans of open-wheel racing to be patient about results, because for all the other gifts Patrick possessed in abundance ó smarts, toughness, charisma and good looks ó she was still woefully short on experience. That’s no longer the case.
Here’s a name from the not-too-distant past to remind fans that while sports can be a glamorous business, it’s always a tough one ó tougher still the longer you go without winning: Anna Kournikova.
Asked whether she was feeling the pressure to do just that ó win ó Patrick replied, “You want as many wins as you can get as a driver. That’s what we’re supposed to do.
“So, yes,” she added, “that would be nice.”
And not just for Patrick, but for her sport and its faded crown jewel, the Indy 500. Even moreso, perhaps, for GoDaddy.com, the Web site that’s sponsored the race telecast for the past three years, but remains better known for teasing video clips of Danica in various stages of undress.
Patrick said she hasn’t really thought about how much more popular winning the Indy 500 would make her.
“I don’t know what to expect. I’m fortunate enough,” she said matter-of-factly, “to be a popular athlete in general and a popular female athlete as well.”
But as the people in charge of race itself could remind, nothing lasts forever.
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