Pundits have already renamed the Great American Race the Danica 500.
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They’re calling NASCAR’s kickoff to the 2012 season “Danicapalooza."
Yes, Danica Patrick will make her Sprint Cup Series debut in the Daytona 500 this Sunday. It’s the first time a woman has raced in the 500 – or in stock car’s top tour – since Shawna Robinson in 2002.
Still, the soon-to-be 30-something enjoys “being a girl.” But who says a girl can’t strap into a race car and be just as fierce as any other competitor on the racetrack?
Patrick won’t be the first racer to tell you that gender disappears once the helmet goes on. And after seven seasons in IndyCar, where she became the first female to win a race on a closed course (Motegi, Japan 2008) and led laps in the Indianapolis 500, Patrick is ready for her next challenge – running the full Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports and 10 Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing, in partnership with Tommy Baldwin Racing.
So what is Patrick like away from the track?
While she acknowledges “that’s all up for opinion and interpretation” Patrick likes to channel her inner domestic goddess. She treasures her downtime with husband/trainer Paul Hospenthal. At home in Phoenix, she enjoys cooking, sewing, yoga and a bottle of good red wine.
“I can cook and sew,” Patrick said. “I like to take care of my husband and be a good wife. But I like to be capable of a lot of things. It’s confidence building. It’s nice to do things and create things on your own. I guess I’m more of a creative, artistic mind than I am a math mind. You could break people down to artistic or analytical and I’m definitely more on the artistic side. When I’m away from the racetrack, I like to be away from it all. I don’t even like to talk about it sometimes. I just like to get away. I like to enjoy my time off. I enjoy the breaks that we get.
“There’s so much that we have to do outside of the race car with all the sponsors and the endorsements that I’m able to have on my side. So, a lot of people ask if I’m moving to Charlotte, well, when I have two days off, I want to spend those two days recovering, getting ready and working out and doing the things that I like to do, need to do, enjoy to do and make me excited to go back again. So I like to get completely away. How else do you stay energized (after racing) for 21 years?”
Despite the reputation as a prima donna on the IndyCar side of motorsports, Patrick has been gracious and engaging with the NASCAR crowd. She’s converted many of her fellow competitors to fans, including Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Thursday, during media day, Stenhouse made a point of tracking Patrick down to show off his freshly trimmed locks. Last season, Patrick, who has a flair for fashion, sent a note to Stenhouse’s crew chief Mike Kelley that it might be time for his driver to lose the mullet. When the 24-year-old Olive Branch, Miss.-native peered under a curtain where Patrick was performing the obligatory hat dance – a photo shoot with caps from every imaginable NASCAR sponsor – she just laughed about “his low-drag haircut.”
“Some people like mullets so I don’t want to alienate them and people are comfortable with a whole lot of styles,” Patrick said. “But I’m a girl and I like fashion. I like photo shoots and that kind of stuff and what the new kind of look is for people. That’s my style and why I would have that kind of opinion.”
Stenhouse took the suggestion to heart, even though his crew believed the hairdo was good luck, due to his respect for Patrick.
Stenhouse raced against Patrick in 12 events last season. But he found a more personable side to his fellow competitor off the racetrack.
“She’s very, very dedicated,” Stenhouse said. “It’s not just to racing, she’s really dedicated to NASCAR. It’s crazy, but I think she wants it more than anybody out here when you talk to her. It’s 100 percent ‘how can she get better.’ It’s 100 percent ‘how she can make the sport grow.’ I think that’s awesome for her.
“She’s very grounded. She’s just normal. For all the followers she has, for all the fans, she’s just down-to-Earth. And I think that’s really, really cool. It’s easy to talk to her, you know? She’s going to be good for our sport.”
Kenny Wallace found a similar kinship with Patrick, who despite growing up north of Chicago in Roscoe, Ill., is a St. Louis baseball fan given her husband’s friendship with the Cardinals training staff.
“I parked next to Danica in the Nationwide garage area last year and watched her,” Wallace said. “She is serious and intense but yet fun. She fits in well and wants to do this NASCAR deal right.
“And then when I got on the racetrack with her, she won me over with her ability. She can drive a race car.”
On the Cup side, her team owner — defending champion Tony Stewart — hasn’t had much of an opportunity to work with Patrick at the track yet but he was impressed by her ability to quickly absorb data and adapt to conditions.
“She processes information so fast, it’s much quicker than any other rookie that I have seen,” Stewart said. “Her feedback is really good and detailed. You can’t teach that, that is a talent that you have to have. Nobody can teach you to have that amount of feedback and feel for a car.
“There is no doubt in my mind that she is going to be good in these, it is just a matter of how long is it going to take for her to really get super comfortable in these cars.”
Personally, the comfort level is already solid between Patrick and her SHR teammates. Stewart described the chemistry between himself, Ryan Newman and Patrick as “perfect” and quite “comical.” Not only does Patrick share her fellow Midwesterners sarcastic demeanor, she’s every bit as competitive, as Stewart discovered during their first test together at Daytona last month.
“She is feistier than I was when I came into the sport,” Stewart said. “Driving to eat dinner when we were here at the test, she was going to beat me to the edge of the parking lot so I just let her go.
“We have a long season; I just let her win the first time. I know some of the short cuts to get to the restaurants at some of these other tracks that she doesn’t know yet, so I’ll win my share.”
Patrick has won her share of battles over the years. But as a woman in a male-dominated sport, one aspect she still wrestles with is the use of the word “sexy” to describe her character. Certainly, sex sells and Patrick’s sponsor GoDaddy isn’t shy when incorporating their spokeswoman’s attributes into its marketing campaign. Still, Patrick questions why the label sexy pertains to women more often than men.
“I’m just kind of curious at other people’s breakdown of why when people refer to women they tend to refer to pretty athletes or any woman as sexy,” Patrick said. “Pretty women are sexy instead of just like accomplished, strong, beautiful women. Usually it’s sexy said instead. Why is that? Why is it when people think of a pretty girl, they think of the word sex? It’s just in there. It’s not for me to figure out. I’m just asking the question this time.
“I’m flattered to be considered as being sexy but in certain situations and environments it adds a negative feel for me.”
But inside the race car sexy doesn’t matter. Patrick will be judged strictly on performance.