For Danica Patrick, the fire-resistant shoe might finally be on the other foot.
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Still relatively early in her transition to NASCAR, Patrick isn’t used to having any kind of experience advantage over the rest of the Nationwide Series field. But she thinks things will be different Saturday at Road America, a scenic 4-mile road course that winds through central Wisconsin.
While road-course racing wasn’t Patrick’s favorite thing to do during her time in the IndyCar Series – she prefers oval tracks – she does have more experience at it than many drivers who came up racing stock cars.
”I suppose the tables have turned a little bit, coming from so much road racing over the last couple of years in IndyCar,” Patrick said Friday. ”I kind of get the feeling from a lot of drivers who came up through the stock-car ranks that they don’t always love coming to road courses. And that was kind of how I felt in IndyCar, going to all the road courses all the time. And now I come to a road course and I’m like, `Yeah, all right. Let’s do this.”’
Road America wasn’t among the handful of NASCAR races Patrick ran last year in preparation for her full-time transition to stock cars. But Patrick did finish fourth in a Formula Atlantic race at the track in 2004.
”Oddly enough, this is one of those tracks that I actually pretty vividly remember,” Patrick said. ”That’s probably because it has so many hills, and it’s a memorable track. It’s definitely unique from a road-course perspective.”
While Patrick believes she’s making steady progress in her transition to NASCAR, she’s also encountering new challenges.
After a rough race at Michigan last week, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. told USA Today that there’s ”not a lot of respect for her out there right now” and seemed to imply that Patrick needed to be more willing to mix it up with other drivers.
”These guys will certainly take advantage of the gender situation and think she won’t do it,” Eury told the paper. ”I’m going to help her get her head right where she can do it.”
Patrick acknowledged Eury’s comments Friday, but stopped short of saying that she would drive more aggressively to make a point to other drivers.
”Tony’s a great teacher, and he’s been around for a really long time and he’s seen a lot of stuff go down on the track,” Patrick said. ”And so for me, I feel like as my speed has come up and I’m racing further up the grid, I’m racing against new people now. And I said it from the very beginning when I got into NASCAR, you’ve got to earn the respect of the folks that you’re driving around. And again, I feel like I’m racing against some newer drivers as you get further up the grid. So it’s just a matter of finding limits with each other and earning respect, and that’s what I’m doing.”
To prepare for Saturday, Patrick has watched footage of last year’s race and will continue to pick the brain of her JR Motorsports teammate this weekend, Canadian road-racing ace Ron Fellows.
”We’ve got some collected data that we’ve both been looking at in terms of comparisons,” Fellows said.
And while Road America isn’t home for Patrick, it’s close – she was born in Beloit, Wis. and was raised in Roscoe, Ill.
”I just feel like I see a lot of familiar faces when I come up here, people that have been around racing for a long time,” Patrick said. ”Especially some of my dad’s friends, he used to race snowmobiles and those kinds of folks show up, the people that I remember from childhood and obviously longtime friends of my family. My parents, and a bunch of other people have got motorhomes this weekend, and they’re cooking out and stopping by for a beer after the race. That’s the plan. It just has a comfortable feeling, I think, being here. I’m familiar with the pace of life, I suppose.”
Patrick also enjoys the atmosphere at a track where Fiat and Jaguar owners can mingle with the NASCAR crowd.
”It’s a really fun, educated fan base and they love their road racing,” Patrick said.