With a new car underneath her and a team behind her that she feels is as driven as she is, Danica Patrick can’t wait for the Indy Car season to begin this Saturday night in Homestead, Fla.
“They’re just a team that’s won more than anybody else,” she said Wednesday on TODAY of her new team, Andretti Green Racing. “They’re driven and they’ve been working so hard this winter to get fast.”
Patrick burst upon the American racing scene in 2005, a very talented — and very glamorous —woman in a sport fueled by ethanol, testosterone and beer. She finished fourth in the Indy 500 that year, becoming the first woman to ever lead that race along the way.
She drove for the team led by former Indy champ Bobby Rahal and David Letterman, but left the team last year after a disappointing season that she attributed to inferior equipment.
“We were beaten by a couple of teams last year pretty convincingly, so it was a disappointing year,” she told TODAY's Matt Lauer and Al Roker.
At the end of the season, she was courted heavily by NASCAR to leave the open-wheeled Indy cars and climb into a Nextel Cup stock car. But the woman, who began her career racing go carts in 1992 at the age of 10, was in love with open-wheeled cars and elected to stay on the Indy circuit but switch to the Andretti Green team, for whom she will drive the No. 7 car powered by Honda.
“They’ve been working so hard and I really think it’s going to pay off,” she said.
Racing beats fashion shoots
Her stardom has landed her numerous endorsement deals and on a lot of magazine covers, but, she said, she knows what’s important and why she attracts so much attention.
“I don’t let anything get in the way,” she said. “I would never schedule a photo shoot if I thought it was going to get in the way. If I don’t drive well, what are you going to talk to me about, my hair?”
Patrick is the hottest property in auto racing, the first woman to have the team, the car and the talent to win. Women drivers aren’t new in the sport; Sarah Christian, Louise Smith and Ethel Mobley all ran in local, dirt-track NASCAR races starting in 1949.
But no woman has ever won a race, and until Patrick’s rookie season two years ago, no woman had ever led a race or been considered a serious contender.
Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1977, is considered the true pioneer of her gender in the sport. She also was the first woman to run in the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of stock car races.
But Guthrie’s presence was openly resented on the circuit, and she never had either the equipment or the backing to compete at the highest levels of the sport.
Sights on victory
What sets Patrick apart from the pioneers before her, aside from her talent, which she has been proving since she was 16 and went to England to race, is that she is a marquee driver on a top team.
Last year was disappointing to some because she didn’t get into the winner’s circle and didn’t improve on the fourth-place finish she had in the 2005 Indy 500 — her best result to date. But she also didn’t have the fastest car.
This is Patrick’s third year in Indy cars, the year during which most new drivers begin to blossom. Her first two years have been full of hype and promise. They’ve also demonstrated that she’s not a sideshow attraction but a highly competitive and supremely talented driver. But they have not yet produced a victory.
Saturday night, under the lights in Homestead, whose winner has gone on to win four of the past six Indy 500s, she hopes to fill in that final hole on her resume.
The race will air live on March 24 at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN2.
—Mike Celizic, TODAYshow.com contributor