There's probably no bigger name in American auto racing right now than that of Danica Patrick. You read me right. I'm talking about names like NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, even former driving-open-wheel-legends-turned-team-owners Roger Penske and Mario Andretti.
For sure, there are drivers past and present whose on-track accolades and accomplishments dwarf what Patrick has done in her six years as one of the most celebrated drivers in the IndyCar Series. But that's precisely the point. The talented and talkative -- but not always discreet about it -- Patrick does not have the titles and race trophies that embellish the resumes of the real legends of the sport. But what she does have is one of the largest followings and marketing values of anyone who has ever donned a race-driver's protective fire suit.
This Sunday, in front of 250,000-plus live, reveling race fans who will call Indiana home and pack Indianapolis Motor Speedway to capacity for the centennial celebration of the what is called "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," Patrick will make her seventh appearance in the 33-car field for the prestigious Indianapolis 500. She'll be at the wheel of the No. 7 Go-Daddy.com Dallara-Honda she drives for the Andretti Autosport team.
Patrick's following and media exposure has been gargantuan since her IndyCar debut in 2005 with Rahal-Letterman Racing. In her rookie race in the Indy 500 that year, Patrick started on the second row, and she actually led the race at two different times, the first woman driver ever to be out in front of the field in the Indianapolis 500. She led briefly at about the 125-mile mark because of a pitting sequence, but even more surprising she took the lead for almost 20 laps right near the end before Dan Wheldon passed her with only a few laps remaining and went on to win the race. Patrick would finish in the same position she started: fourth. Extremely disappointing at the time, for sure, but a remarkable achievement for a first-time competitor in such a celebrated race.
In making her Indy 500 debut, the petite, then-23-year-old Patrick was only the fourth female driver to ever compete in the historic race. She followed the path blazed before her by Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 (1977-79). The best Guthrie ever did in her three years qualifying for the 500 was ninth in 1978. Lyn St. James qualified for seven races at Indy, with her best finish (11th) coming in her rookie season in 1992. Sarah Fisher was a rookie driver in St. James' final Indy 500 in 2000.
Fisher competed in nine races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most so far of any of the women drivers, but the highest she ever finished at the brickyard was 17th in 2008. Fisher was the best of the women qualifiers in the 2008 race, as Patrick was involved in a pit-lane accident early in the race that ended her chances and set her back to 22nd place. It would become Patrick's worst finish at Indy in her six starts there.
Fisher ran 26th in last year's Indy 500 as an owner/driver in what may have been her final 500 race as a driver; she relinquished her driver's seat for this year's race to Ed Carpenter.
These four courageous and gifted female drivers are credited with changing the face and culture of open-wheel racing, as well as other forms of high-speed motor sports, in America - not just temporarily but forever. In this milestone year, the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, the traditional drivers' meeting on Saturday will feature four female participants, a far cry from 34 years earlier when Guthrie met Jackie Robinson-like resistance when she made the initial attempt at crossing the gender barrier in what heretofore had been an all-male sport.
For the second consecutive year, the Indy 500 starting grid will include three other women drivers in addition to Patrick. Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland, representing HVM Racing, and Ana Beatriz of Brazil, driving this year for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, are making their second appearance at the Brickyard. De Silvestro qualified 24th, and Beatriz claimed the 33rd and final position in the starting field. A year ago, de Silvestro finished 13th at Indy, while Beatriz was 21st. Making her debut at Indy this year, in the 32nd position on the grid next to Beatriz, is Pippa Martin, a rising young star from England.
In five of her six appearances in the Indianapolis 500 field, Patrick has ended the 250 laps around the 2.5-mile oval circuit no worse than eighth. Her most memorable Indy 500 may have been her first in her rookie season, but Patrick's best finish was in 2009 when she crossed the historical all-brick finish line in third place. That is the best finish ever in this race by a female driver.
"I'm just trying to do everything I can to compete at the highest level I'm capable of," Patrick told Bruce Martin of Sports Illustrated.com recently. "If that proves to people that women are capable of doing well, then great. But when I see the faces on the trophy and I'm not one of them, it makes me feel small.
"I want to win because I want to have my face on it. To have played a role in the Indianapolis 500 is great, but I want to play the ultimate role by winning it," she said.
Even though Patrick is still young, hungry and highly capable, her desire to claim the ultimate prize at Indy, as she calls it, and the reality of her achieving that grand dream appear to be heading in divergent directions. Part of the reason for this could be her serious interest in expanding her racing repertoire by taking on a very different challenge and seeing what she is capable of in the high-visibility, big-money world of NASCAR.
Patrick qualified 23rd for the 500 a year ago, her worst starting position at the Speedway, but managed to navigate her way through the field and make up 17 positions at the end for a sixth-place finish. This year, because of technical issues with the Go-Daddy.com car, weather delays, and the car's failure to meet race specifications, Patrick came dangerously close to not making the 33-car field for the first time in her six previous attempts. Despite all of the factors working against her, Patrick was able to secure the 26th qualifying spot on Bump Day last Sunday. But she'll be starting even farther back this year than last. And the real problem is: The field is getting stronger with each passing year.
Patrick is quick to point out another problem with starting a major race like the Indy 500 so far back in the field: "Not only are you starting from the back but you can't work on your race setup, and the problems come then," she said.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have handicapped Patrick's chances of winning her first Indy 500 race this year at 25-1.
For the past two years, Patrick has been trying to balance NASCAR Nationwide Series and IndyCar schedules, allowing her to race a partial schedule for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series while also fulfilling her IndyCar contract with Andretti Motorsports in the Indy Racing League. While her performance in stock car racing hasn't been all that stellar to this point - she did come in fourth earlier this year at Las Vegas Speedway, however, her best finish to date - there is strong speculation that Patrick is ready to make the racing transition full time starting with the 2012 NASCAR season.
ESPN.com reported this week that a deal is close to being finalized that will give Danica Patrick a full-time ride in NASCAR in 2012. The deal would include a full schedule in the Nationwide Series, as well as a select number of Sprint Cup races, according to the report. ESPN also says, however, that the contract being worked out with Patrick also allows female racing star to compete in the Indianapolis 500 next year.
Patrick's contracts with both Andretti Motorsports in the IndyCar Series and JR Motorsports in NASCAR's Nationwide Series expire this year. Patrick has said repeatedly that she has not made any decisions about her future. She certainly can't think that we're all that gullible.
Okay, so she's reportedly leaving it open to compete - or, at least, attempt to qualify for - next year's Indy 500. That doesn't necessarily mean that she will. And what about the years beyond that?
Come Sunday and the 100th Anniversary celebration of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," could we be witnessing Danica Patrick's swan song, or even a preliminary curtain call, in the Great American Race? As much as she longs to see her face embossed on the Borg-Warner trophy that goes to the winner of the Indianapolis 500, it appears that the window of opportunity is drawing to a close.