Whether you loved or hated her, Danica Patrick’s final professional auto racing start in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 will mark the end of an era.
No matter your metric, Patrick will go down in history as one of the most successful female drivers ever in both IndyCar and NASCAR, if not the singular holder of that title. From humble beginnings in Beloit, Wisconsin, Patrick went from a highly touted karting star to one of auto racing’s strongest and most identifiable personalities.
After dropping out of high school in 1998 to pursue her racing dreams, Patrick moved to England to race Formula Vauxhall and Formula Ford. When that route didn’t pan out, Bobby Rahal took a chance on her for five Barber Dodge Pro Series races in 2002, and was suitably impressed enough to campaign her for two full Toyota Atlantic seasons thereafter. She became the first woman to ever qualify on the pole in the series in 2004, on the way to third place in the championship.
Most of you know the story from there: first woman to lead at Indy, first woman to win an IndyCar race when she took a victory in Japan in 2008, media superstardom as the face of the GoDaddy brand, NASCAR opportunities with some of the sport’s biggest names, a Daytona 500 pole in her first full NASCAR Cup Series season, five-plus years of racing stock cars, and this weekend, where it all comes to an end.
But culturally, there’s a lot more to Danica Patrick’s success than any stat sheet will ever outline.
Sure, Patrick was far from the first high-profile or successful female race car driver; in her two disciplines alone, Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James blazed a trail before her, and countless others have excelled in other disciplines, such as NHRA’s Shirley Muldowney and WRC’s Michele Mouton. And Patrick’s detractors have always been quick to cite her results (or lack thereof, in their eyes) as a means to dismiss her as simply a marketing machine. Nowhere was this criticism worse than her time in NASCAR, when even Richard Petty drew attention for suggesting that the only way she’d ever win a Cup Series race is “if everybody else stayed home.”
But in an era where marketing has never mattered more in motorsport, Patrick was the one woman who managed to captivate media for who she was and compete well enough to keep their attention.
She’s built an empire around the brand of Danica, promoting everything from athletic and leisure wear to her own winery. An adept television host and brand ambassador, Patrick’s list of current and former partners spans from Motorola to Coca-Cola. She’s designed her own Hot Wheels model and appeared on The Simpsons. By recognizing her value as a businesswoman, and perhaps even putting that first, she’s set herself up for an even more successful and lucrative second career from the moment she hangs up her helmet for good on Sunday afternoon.
She’ll hang it up with the most starts, top 10s, and laps led among all women at stock car racing’s highest level. And in IndyCar competition, where she was even more successful, she remains the only woman to win a race.
If those accomplishments aren’t enough, Patrick is one of only a select few drivers to lead both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. Period.
It’s a resume that most of her detractors could never hope to put together.
And while she may have wrapped up her NASCAR career without a victory, she’s got a great shot at paying it off at Indianapolis. Starting seventh for Ed Carpenter Racing in Sunday’s 500, she’s adapted to her first open-wheel outing since 2011 like she never left the series. In her first seven Indy attempts, she’s only missed the top 10 once, and her last start doesn’t look likely to see her add another blemish to that record.
But wouldn’t it be something to see that era wrap up with a win?