INDIANAPOLIS – It was 10 years ago Friday that a mere curiosity turned into outright mania as Danica Patrick came within seven laps of winning the 89th Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2005.
Patrick started fourth and led 19 laps in that race before she was passed with seven laps to go by eventual winner Dan Wheldon. Patrick’s Honda would fade to a fourth-place finish but that achievement overshadowed Wheldon’s victory and created a pop-culture icon that continues to this day.
The diminutive driver from Roscoe, Illinois, would go on to become the first female driver ever to win a race in a major closed-course racing series (not counting drag racing) when she drove to victory in the IndyCar Series race at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 20, 2008. Patrick would spend three more seasons in IndyCar before making the full-time switch to NASCAR.
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But it was this day 10 years ago when Patrick’s popularity skyrocketed into orbit and it’s a day those closest to her recall fondly.
It was Danica’s father who helped start her racing career in go-karts before sending her to England to live as a teenager to race against some of today’s top names in the junior formula categories of international racing.
“It wasn’t even in my realm of thoughts,” T.J. Patrick, Danica’s father, told FOXSports.com. “People don’t realize I’ve been coming to the Indianapolis 500 since 1974. I’m on the North Forty partying, getting drunk and then coming in here and watching the race all hung-over. I never dreamt that I would have my kid in it, let alone my daughter. Then to have her be as good as she is here I never dreamt that.”
It really started at Motegi that year when she started on the outside of the front row and nearly won that race, finishing fourth after leading 42 laps as the first car not on a fuel-mileage strategy. She came to Indianapolis that year and was one of the fastest drivers in practice heading into Pole Day.
When Patrick started her qualification lap, she went too hot into Turn 1 and the car bobbled. Patrick was able to keep control of the car and kept her foot on the accelerator. She nearly made up for the bobble on her final three laps to win the pole, but ultimaty qualified fourth.
Danica Patrick joins the starting grid of 33 drivers in the Indianapolis 500 for a photograph on May 23, 2005.
That Indy 500 qualification effort was noticed by one of NASCAR’s legendary mechanics and team owners.
“Danica is going to win one, one day,” Leonard Wood told FOXSports.com. “She has enough talent to win under the right set of circumstances but it’s like that for any driver. I remember when she qualified at Indy the very first time. She was going to be on pole but she bobbled and saved it.
“I was talking to her about it and she stayed in the throttle.
“She is feisty and you have to have that in order to be competitive. That is what makes a competitor.”
By performing so well at auto racing’s “Cathedral of Speed,” Patrick’s qualification effort drew immediate attention. Other female drivers had preceded her in the Indianapolis 500 including the pioneer Janet Guthrie, who was followed by Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher and others, but Patrick was different.
Patrick was the most competitive female driver that had yet to race in the Indy 500. And the fact she had the attractive looks of a model along with a spirited personality made her the complete package to become a star in the celebrity world.
“Leading up to it, it was almost like a blur because it happened so fast,” T.J. Patrick said. “Even the race was crazy. I met with her after that and she was changing clothes. She was upset. She was crying and said, ‘I should have won the pole.’ I told her, ‘Danica, you gained more respect today by saving that car, not crashing and keeping your foot in it than if you had won the pole. If you had won the pole they would have said you had the fastest car. You proved today you can drive the race car.’
“Two cars after her, Ryan Briscoe bobbled the same way and put it in the fence.
Danica Patrick leads the late Dan Wheldon and the rest of the field during the 2005 Indianapolis 500.
“She proved then she could drive the race car. She knew how to get around here.”
Back then, pole qualification for the Indianapolis 500 was two weeks before the Indy 500. That meant two full weeks of publicity for Patrick and IndyCar racing heading into Race Day.
“I didn’t sleep much for the simple reason everybody in the world wanted to come down and watch the race and they showed up at midnight wanting their tickets,” her father recalled. “I wasn’t going to sleep any way so every time I dropped a ticket off I had to have a beer so I got to bed late, got up early to get here.
“I just remember it happening really fast. Boom, the morning flew right by and it was race time.”
Early on Patrick was running fourth or fifth but in the closing stages of the race she was involved in an incident on the restart with Tomas Scheckter in the north short chute between Turns 3 and 4 heading to a restart on Lap 155. Patrick was able to use that caution to get fuel in an effort to have enough to make it to the finish. As the other cars in front of her had to make pit stops to get fuel for the finish, Patrick moved up the grid until she was in the lead by Lap 172. She was in front for 14 laps before Wheldon took the lead from Lap 186-189. Patrick once again passed Wheldon for the lead on Lap 190.
With Patrick in the lead on Lap 193, she had to nurse the feather and throttle. With fuel to burn, Wheldon blew by her, took the lead and won the race seven laps later.
“If she had it to do over again she wouldn’t have backed off and kept her foot in it,” T.J. Patrick said. “I couldn’t have. I would have kept my foot in it and hope for a yellow because I wasn’t losing. She still had fuel in the tank so she didn’t need to back down when she did.”
T.J. was managing her career at that time and the explosion of popularity with her fourth-place finish made it difficult to meet all the demands.
“Holy Cow, now what do we do?” T.J. remembered. “There were a lot of requests to sift through. We had to turn some of the TV shows down because we just didn’t have enough time to do them all.”
What was then still known as the Indy Racing League received a huge boost from Patrick’s popularity.
“Look at what the TV ratings did after that year’s Indy 500,” Bobby Rahal, Patrick’s team owner at the time, told FOXSports.com. “It was unbelievable. I don’t think anybody expected the kind of reaction in part because nobody really knew if she could do it. We saw each day the coverage going from motorsports to social magazine, Internet – it just got crazy.
“It gave the series a big boost, for sure. I remember the Andretti team protesting at Milwaukee that at the autograph session nobody was waiting for autographs from their guys because everyone was standing in line for Danica. She was a social phenomenon at the time and you could totally understand that. Here was a young woman now that really had the capability to potentially win the Indy 500.
“We all thought it would be something but I don’t know if we ever knew what it ended up to be.”
The 2005 Indianapolis 500 may have been the only time in its history that a writer from Glamour Magazine covered the race.
Actually, Glamour Magazine covered Danica Mania.
“She delivered the goods and kept her composure I give her great credit for that,” Rahal said. “She delivered and that was something else.”
Two years later, Patrick had left Rahal Letterman Racing to join the rival team owned by Michael Andretti. Together, they would make history when Patrick scored her only victory in major auto racing in 2008.
“I was disappointed when she left because I brought her to the dance and she went home with someone else,” Rahal said. “I think she would have done better if she had stayed with us. At the time, they didn’t think so. If she had stayed with us she would have been the focus but at Andretti she was one driver out of four. She would have been the main entry for us and benefited by that.”
Ten years on from the 2005 Indianapolis 500, and Patrick was competing in the Coca-Cola 600 while her parents were at the Indianapolis 500.
“Every year I wish she were still here,” T.J. said. “I’m sure if Danica had her choice she would have liked to have been here but times change and opportunities change and people change. The opportunity to go NASCAR — in all honesty, I tried to push her into earlier because you could see that was going to be the bigger stage for her.”
Patrick was magic in an IndyCar but has found it difficult to achieve success in NASCAR. She continues to make progress in her third full season but hasn’t been able to become a consistent threat like the big-name stars in NASCAR.
“I can’t imagine she is having a whole lot of fun,” Rahal said. “I’m sure she has gotten really wealthy but she has paid a price for that, for sure.
“Where does she go from there? When I look at her races in NASCAR I’m not sure it can be that much fun.”
Rahal was her team owner for her breakthrough season in 2005 but in this case, her father knows best.
“I think she’s underrated as a driver but she is always looked at a little different,” T.J. said. “But it’s different with her. It’s a love-hate relationship that people have with Danica.”
Thinking back to the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and the birth of “Danica Mania” still brings tears to her father’s eyes.
“I still pinch myself,” T.J. said. “Every time that race comes on I cry. I could cry now.
“It’s just a dream.”
The dream continues to live on for Patrick 10 years after the dream of winning the Indianapolis 500 nearly came true. And 10 years later, she has the same qualities that created Danica Mania.
“The thing that Danica has is she’s got that attitude,” Rahal said. “She is a tiger – a real tiger. She is a racer.
“When she was with us, she was a racer, no question about it.”
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. ET.