When you look back over Danica Patrick’s hyper-documented career — as Patrick herself did recently in a feature for the CBS Morning show (above) — turning points start to emerge. Like toughness tempered by a difficult European experience, fame launched by a “magical day in Indianapolis,” and private joy that takes the edge off professional disappointment.
European-Made Mental Armor
From when she first sat in a go kart through last Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup ride at Kansas Speedway, Patrick’s career is among the most documented in sports history.
What seems clear is that Patrick left for Europe after a somewhat idyllic rise to fame in the U.S. The uniqueness of a woman in racing circa 1997, her model looks, focused and sometimes fiery personality, natural media savvy, and the relatively under-the-radar arena of go-karting all helped keep life fun.
But when 16-year-old Patrick hit the shores of England, reality was waiting to greet her, and it brought gifts ... including frequent doses of misogynistic-tinged scrutiny and active dislike. At least the “no girls allowed (to succeed)” vibe wasn’t unique to Patrick. Her contemporaries Katherine Legge and Pippa Mann and doubtless many others drank from the same bitter cup. But along with the gender issues, Patrick also faced the late-90s version of “Yankee go Home.”
"They don't like Americans, let alone women," Patrick's father, T.J., told James.
Experience is the greatest teacher, and class was definitely in session in Europe. Patrick faced these tough lessons without her trusted advisors and protectors, mother Bev and father T.J.
“I was 16 and young, and naive and open-minded,” Patrick said Friday at Kansas Speedway. “I really hadn’t been hurt yet, so, yeah, I would tell anyone anything they wanted to know, and just talk out loud and trust people were doing a good job for me, and they weren’t.”
Patrick said one of the biggest lessons from Europe “was probably the toughness that came from it and to not being so open with people. Also understanding that not everyone has the purest intentions and not everyone really cares much about me.”
When Patrick got back to the states at age 19 she had what Bev Patrick described as a “hard shell.”
"I think I had it (thicker skin) when I came home from England," Patrick said in this 2010 interview. "Because I had just such an awful time and there was only one way to cope, and that was to emotionally turn off a little bit more. So I think I have been a little cold since then."
Today, 12 years on from Europe and three years after she made the statement above, the shell seems to have softened somewhat. There are more smiles and laughs these days. The mental armor forged in Europe even comes in handy in handling the small-but-vocal cadre that openly hopes Patrick literally crashes and burns in every race. Other lessons from England still echo.
“I’m probably still learning about how a team operates, and what you need to do (as a driver) how hard you have to work for yourself, still,” Patrick said. “No matter what level you get to, you’re in control of your own destiny.”
Today Danica Patrick is in control. In some ways it's both her strength -- less pain and more gain -- and vulnerability -- opens the door for allegations of being a me-first diva. One way Patrick asserts control is through her understanding of the symbiotic relationship between professional athletes and members of the media.
”I think at the end of the day the job of journalist is to get people to read their articles, and be published in a big way,” said Patrick. “For us (Danica and her advisors), it’s more about making sure that everyone’s happy and doesn’t find a reason to not like me anymore, or to write mean things about me.”
The way the media make money is by attracting audiences. And everybody in the media knows the name "Danica Patrick" can draw a huge audience -- of both lovers and haters -- all by itself. That results in dozens more media requests for Patrick's time that can possibly be accommodated. Selecting who gets what access comes down to relationships built on understanding and a certain level of trust.
"The things I say or don’t say in those interviews are everything from very careful to some stuff off the record. It only comes through time, but certain people get that certain level of an interview, because of what they’ve done for me or how they’ve treated me," Patrick said.
"I pay attention to who does a good job, and who I like. For the most part, it has a lot to do with people like (PR team) Allison (McKinney), Joe (Crowley) and Haley (Moore), and all the other people along the way that have done my PR for me to handle everyone in a pleasant professional manner, and make them feel good about me and about what we are able to do.”
The ability to work this mutually beneficial relationship with the media appears to be innate with Patrick. From her earliest interviews during her karting days she showed media maturity beyond her years. That ability would serve her well in the aftermath of what she calls “that magical day in Indianapolis.”
The 2005 Indianapolis 500
Any mapping of Patrick’s journey to superstardom invariably traces back to a launching pad at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, 2005.
Patrick entered the 2005 Indy 500 surrounded by a buzz created from being Bobby Rahal’s latest protégé and amplified by fresh reactions to her 2003 FHM photo shoot. That buzz, a factory Honda car very capable of winning, her trademark focus and determination, and Patrick very nearly winning the pole for her first 500 all set the stage.
pressdog: In your CBS letter to yourself recently (above, which Patrick wrote herself), you talked about the ‘magical day in Indianapolis.’ Looking back, do you think that was the big moment, one that changes the path of your career?
Danica Patrick: Yeah. I remember coming in to the first year of Indy 500 thinking to myself that I felt nervous. I felt concerned that if the first year didn’t go well, then you’d be at just as much at risk of not staying in IndyCar as you were to not get there at all. So to have a race like that, I felt like, cemented me a little bit more in the series then and also kept the sponsors excited and happy, and wanting to keep going. Those are the two important things.”
pressdog: What do you remember most about that race? When you think back about it, what immediately sticks out to you as a memory?
Danica: There’s a lot. I remember a lot about that race. Probably the things that stick out, is I remember how rough it started. I remember asking veterans for advice before the race, and just them telling me, how it’s never over, just never give up.
I stalled at the first pit stop; there was a crash three quarters of the way through the race took my front wing off. Then, I still found myself in a position to nearly win the race in the end. I remember the progress. The maturity I felt like I had in the race even though I hadn’t done it before. And then I just remember feeling very comfortable in the lead, just like I was where I belonged, that’s where I was supposed to be.
pressdog: When you took the lead, there was a big roar in the crowd. Did you know that? Could you sense that?
Danica: No. I had a lot of people ask me after the race, if I heard the crowd. But, no, you can’t hear it, but it gives me a little Goosebumps right now thinking about it.
pressdog: You didn’t freak you out a little bit (in the car)?
Danica: The only thing that I saw that gives me any kind of indication, was I saw something on YouTube that was just a handheld camera (shot by a fan). It was me coming down in to Turn 3. You could hear all the people. It was somebody in the stands holding the camera.
You could hear us (the cars), it sounds like jets coming at you. It’s like a [revving engine sound], and they just get so loud, and everybody’s ‘Oh, she’s in the lead, she’s got it, she’s got it.' Everybody erupts and gets excited, and starts cheering. That’s probably the best feeling I have for what it was like. I don’t even remember what point in the race that was, I feel like that was probably after that restart that I passed Dan (Wheldon). All I was thinking about at the time was just timing it right so I could get the run, and I did.
Her late overtake of Dan Wheldon, making Patrick the first and only woman so far to ever to lead the Indy 500, was the pass heard around the world. Wheldon went on to win the race, but it was Patrick who achieved liftoff to fame.
Things went supernova from there. Sports Illustrated covers and a Bataan Death March schedule of interviews. With a combination of media savvy and an acute understanding of how beneficial media exposure was to her career, an indefatigable Patrick rode the bucking publicity bull for all it was worth.
Merging the Two Danicas
Anybody who has found the right mate can tell you the profound, positive impact it has on every aspect of life, both personal and professional.
Fast forward about seven years from the magical day in Indianapolis. There’s a lot to indicate that Danica Patrick, now 30, has mellowed with age. There are few if any angry marches down pit lane and far fewer scowls. It’s mostly “kittens and rainbows,” a shorthand description of a more relaxed and generally happier Patrick. Sure, there are still f-bomb-laced radio transmissions and the occasional in-car rages, but Patrick today seems far more judicious of when, where, how, and to whom she flashes her formidable temper.
Seven years on from her first Indy 500, Patrick’s career has pivoted to NASCAR and her seven-year marriage to Paul Hospenthal has ended. Soon after Patrick’s breakup with Hospenthal, fellow NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Patrick publicly acknowledged their coupleship. Far from her ultra-private life with Hospenthal, Patrick and Stenhouse seem happy to answer questions about their lives together (within reason), even inviting USA Today’s Nate Ryan along on a dinner date where he glimpsed the depth of the relationship (Read it here).
It may be coincidental, but before the arrival of Stenhouse, Patrick usually described herself as two people: At the Track Danica and Away from the Track Danica. At the Track Danica was all business, focused, predominately serious if not dour. Away from the Track Danica was fun and funny, laughing, joking, just one of the girls, having a great time.
Her move to NASCAR seems to have triggered a merging of the two Danicas, with more smiles, more laughs, more general happiness from Patrick even when she’s in the fire suit.
pressdog: My last question is about the happiness in your personal life. How does that impact the rest of your life? Obviously you’re happy ...
Danica: (Laughter) Can you tell?
pressdog: ... well, it looks that to me from the outside. I’m assuming. I haven’t talked to Ricky, but ... What does that do to your life overall? How has that rippled out, because it seems like it’s had an impact.
Danica: I just think that … You just have something to always look forward to, even the simple things of like lying on the couch together, and watching TV or spending time with your family or something. Family is big. We’ve had a lot of fun at the racetrack with them.
It's having enough fun stuff to look forward to outside of the racecar, even if you’re still at the racetrack, to not let what happened on the track that day to dominate your mood the whole day.
For more of my interview with Danica -- including her thoughts on keeping up team morale, her relationship with the media, in what way Stenhouse is a role model for her, and dealing with haters, read the partial transcript here.