Thursday, 29 July 2010

Danica Patrick

Danica in 2014

Danica Patrick is the most successful and visible female driver in recent motorsport history.

Danica began her racing career in karting at the age of ten. After a couple of learning years, she won several prestigious championships and set lap records that have not been bettered to this day. When the time came for her to switch to cars, she and her family decamped to Milton Keynes, England, to race in the ultra-competitive junior single-seater formulae there. In 1998 and 1999 she raced in Formula Vauxhall, with some good finishes, coming tenth in the championship in 1999. She moved on to Formula Ford in 2000, with Haywood Racing, who operated as the works Mygale team. That year she made history by finishing second in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival, a first for a female driver and the best for an American since Danny Sullivan in 1988.

She remained at Haywood for most of 2001, but the Mygale was off the pace that year. Her average finishing place was tenth and funds were running out, so she dropped out before the end of the season and returned home. At the time it seemed like a bad move, but it paid off handsomely.

It did not quite seem that way the end of 2001, when she had quit the UK Formula Ford championship and failed to secure drives in British F3 and the ALMS. She tested an F3 car for Carlin Motorsport at Pembrey but nothing came of it. Not long afterwards, she and her fellow American Patrick Long were linked to a works ALMS drive in a BMW M3, but BMW had already decided to finish its sportscar programme. It was a win in the Pro division of the annual Toyota Pro Celebrity race which brought her back into the limelight in 2002.

Danica, from Illinois, was signed on a long-term development deal with Rahal Racing. The result was that she competed in the Champ Car series in the USA for two seasons, and Danica held hopes that this could lead to a Formula One seat. She got the call from Rahal in mid-2002 and was immediately entered for some Barber Dodge Pro Series races, to re-familiarise herself with the tracks. She competed in five races in all and acquitted herself well. Her best finish was fourth, in Vancouver.

The second part of Rahal's driver development plan took her to the 2003 Toyota Atlantic series, which supports the CART championship. She impressed immediately with a third place at Monterey. For most of the season she was a steady top-ten finisher, beside other up-and-coming stars like Ryan Dalziel. She saved her best until the last round in Miami, where she was second.

The team also entered her in some American Le Mans Series sportscar races in 2003 and Danica was said to be keen to race there again.

Still getting back into the swing of ovals, she spent another year in Atlantics before graduating to the Indy Racing League. Her best 2004 finish was another runner-up spot, at Portland. She was an almost permanent fixture in the top ten that year.

Backed by David Letterman and Bobby Rahal, Danica really captured the public imagination in her first IRL season, in 2005. It started inauspiciously, but by May, the Illinois girl was making headlines. On her first attempt at the hallowed Indy 500, she qualified in second position and was widely tipped in the press as a potential winner. Danicamania was here.

On raceday itself, Danica fought hard on the track and managed to work her way back up the order after a spin, narrowly avoiding two other accidents. Gambling with pitstops paid off and she led for two periods, 19 laps in total. Eventually she was reeled in by the eventual winner, British Dan Wheldon, then passed by Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta. She was fourth overall, a female record and an impressive rookie performance.

To prove she was no fluke, Danica followed this up with another fourth place in Texas. A couple of races later she earned her first pole, at Kansas. Her other pole positions came later, at Kentucky and Chicago. As far as actual results were concerned, she managed a series of top tens, with a second-best result of sixth at Chicago. She was twelfth overall in the standings.

Danica had a second season with the Letterman team in 2006.The year got off to a nasty start for the team when third driver Paul Dana was killed in practice at Miami. His two team-mates were withdrawn from the race as a mark of respect. This followed the earlier disappointment of failing to finish the Daytona 24 Hours in a Boss Pontiac Crawford with Rusty Wallace and Allan McNish, but the disappointment was of a different magnitude.

Some of the hype around Danica died down and her results were not as attention-grabbing, although she was a much more consistent resident in the lower half of the top ten. Her qualifying pace appears to have suffered; there were no more starts from the front row. She did not improve on her best finish from 2005 but she did match it, coming fourth at Milwaukee and Nashville. She was ninth at the end of the season.

In the middle of the year it was announced that Letterman would not be renewing their contract with Danica for the 2007 season. Rumours abounded of a switch to NASCAR and the debate over women stock car drivers was reignited for a time. She then announced that she would be driving for Andretti Green Racing instead.

Her tenure at Andretti started inauspiciously with a non-finish at Miami. However, she was back in the top ten in the next race at St Petersburg, coming eighth. She went one better at Kansas, and managed to keep her qualifying position at the Indy 500 with another eighth. At Fort Worth she scored the first of her three podium positions that season: a third. She was also third at Nashville and second at Detroit. This left her seventh overall.

She stayed with Andretti Green for the 2008 season. After a sixth and a tenth at Homestead and St Petersburg, Danica made history at the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. She beat Helio Castroneves to win the race, a first for her and a first for a female driver. The media went wild again, mostly in a positive way. Unfortunately, her next two races, Kansas and the Indy 500, ended in retirement, despite top-five qualification spots.

The remainder of her season was fairly inconsistent, although she did achieve seven top-tens out of twelve more races. The best of these was fifth, at Nashville and Sonoma. She was sixth in the final standings, her best so far.

2009 was a good year for Danica, although she did not post another win. Still driving for Andretti Green, she finished consistently in and around the top five, with the exception of the season-opening St Petersburg round. She was fifth in the Indy 500, and was fifth in the championship at the end of the season.

In 2009, she also took part in the Daytona 24 Hours with Childress-Howard Motorsports. She was eighth, alongside Andy Wallace, Rob Finlay and Casey Mears. Their car was a Pontiac Crawford Daytona prototype.

In 2010, Danica launched a two-pronged attack on the US motorsport scene, making her debut in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports. Her car was a Chevrolet. Despite early sixth places in an ARCA warm-up event and a NASCAR regional race, she struggled somewhat in NASCAR proper, with a best finish of 21st out of thirteen races. In the IRL, she maintained her position from 2009. After a shaky start to the season and some poor positions, she earned a best finish of second at Texas, and six further top-tens. She was sixth at Indianapolis.

Her NASCAR results showed development in 2011, with a fourth and two tenth places at Las Vegas, Chicago and Daytona respectively, plus several more top twenty finishes. After twelve races, she was 26th overall. On the Indycar side, she had an uneventful year, with a best finish of fifth at Milwaukee. Although she scored several other top tens, including a tenth at the Indy 500, her star was no longer in the ascendant. This would be her last IRL season, and she finished tenth.

Although she had bowed out of open-wheel competition, Danica was nowhere near ready for retirement in 2012, and moved into NASCAR full-time. She took part mainly in the Nationwide series, with some outings in the Sprint Cup. Her team was JR Motorsport, and her car a Chevrolet. Her first Nationwide race of the year, at Daytona, began with a pole, but ended with a disappointing 38th overall. Her first good result was an eighth at Texas, the sixth round of the championship. She managed three more top ten finishes, plus others close to the top ten, and was tenth in the final standings. In the Sprint Cup, she was driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, in a similar car. She only entered ten races, finishing eight, with a best finish of 17th, in her last race at Phoenix.

Danica's adventures in NASCAR continued in 2013. Her first warm-up race, a Nationwide curtain-raiser event at Daytona in a Turner Scott Chevrolet, ended in a DNF, but she bounced back the same day, with a pole position in the Sprint Cup race, and eighth overall, driving for Stewart-Haas Racing. A DNF at Phoenix, then a string of disappointing finishes followed, but she was back in the top twenty at Martinsville, where she was twelfth. Unfortunately, this was to be as good as it got; although her finishing record was reasonable, she was never again among the leaders, in qualifying or on race day. She was 27th overall.

Danica does not shy away from controversy and her presence on the US racing scene has continually raised many of the old questions about female drivers. There has been the usual talk of her getting her race seat because of her gender, plus some more accusing suggestions that her small size (5'1") gives her too much of a weight advantage.

On a more personal note, she caused a stir in 2003 by posing for FHM magazine, in a provocative shoot. Her sudden marriage to a much older man in 2005 provoked a similar reaction (she has since divorced). More recently, a feud with fellow Indy competitor Milka Duno garnered attention, thanks to a YouTube video of the two having a heated disagreement. In NASCAR, she has had to contend with well-reported negativity from the likes of Richard Petty.

In 2014, she continued to race in NASCAR for Stewart-Haas Racing. She was competing in the Sprint Cup series, with some outings in the Budweiser Shootout and Sprint Unlimited championships, at Daytona. 

The Sprint Cup was a mixed experience. She scored three top tens, with the best of these being a sixth at Atlanta. However, her average finishing spot was near the bottom of the top twenty. She was 28th overall. Her car was a Chevrolet. 

Another season with Stewart-Haas followed in 2015, driving the no. 10 Chevrolet. She managed two top-ten finishes: seventh at Martinsville and ninth at Bristol. This surpassed Janet Guthrie's record for the most top-ten NASCAR finishes for a female driver. Danica was 24th overall. Her only real low point of the season was an unseemly spat with David Gilliland. She was fined and docked points for punting him off in retaliation for an earlier crash.

She returned to the Sprint Cup in 2016, driving for Stewart-Haas with a new sponsor, Nature's Bakery. This year, she was not as competitive as she was in 2015, just missing out on a top-ten finish. Her best result was an eleventh, at Charlotte. She was 23rd in the Sprint Cup. She did somewhat better in some of the additional races promoted by NASCAR, finishing seventh in the Daytona Can-Am Duels, and ninth in the Sprint Showdown. 

At the end of 2017, she called time on her NASCAR career, thanking Stewart-Haas for all of the opportunities they had given her. The decision was partly influenced by loss of sponsors, including Nature's Bakery who pulled the plug after one season. This announcement followed another run in the Monster Energy Cup which included a tenth place at Dover, and ended in 28th overall. 

In 2018, she contested the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 one more time as a sort of farewell tour. She qualified seventh in her final Indy 500 but crashed out on lap 67, unfortunately a repeat of what happened in the season-opening Daytona 500. 

She now plans to devote her time to business and media interests.

(Image from

1 comment:

  1. That's quite a lot of research on her career! Hope I can find more notes of her like this!