Patrick wants to be one of the guys, but better

Patrick wants to be one of the guys, but better

Published Jan. 16, 2012 6:44 p.m. ET

Greg Zipadelli had seen the hype and hope for years. It was impossible to miss, even if you weren't in racing. But until the first week of testing at Daytona, he hadn't been around Danica Patrick, and knew nothing of the petite 29-year-old beyond what he'd gathered through track chatter and ads.  

The reality of America's most popular female race car driver turned out to be a lot different from the image Zipadelli had crafted in his mind.

"She's easy to hang out with; easy to talk with; she gets along with all the guys," Zipadelli said after his first on-track day as Patrick's Sprint Cup crew
chief, the two of them working diligently to try to qualify for the
Daytona 500. "It's just no drama, no drama at all."

That's a refreshing change for Zipadelli, who has dealt with plenty of drama in his 24 years in racing. Zippy was Tony Stewart's original crew chief when Smoke left IndyCar for NASCAR. As such, Zipadelli was present for all of Stewart's snit fits and kick fights, as well as the Rookie of the Year title in 1999 and two Sprint Cup Championships in 2002 and 2005. Zippy also shepherded Joey Logano through his rookie season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

But now the veteran crew chief is the competitions director for Stewart Haas Racing, where he is responsible for the team's latest and greatest project: turning the most media-savvy female race car driver in history into a NASCAR winner. 

Given the commercial attention she receives, it's easy to forget that Danica is also the most successful female driver in auto racing. She is the only woman to win on the IndyCar Series (the 2008 Indy Japan 300), and she finished third in the 2009 Indy 500. She was also the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 2005 and led a lap late in that race before finishing fourth.

Danica has also been the most scrutinized driver in sports, her every start, finish and faux pas churned through the grinder of a media desperate to find a woman — any woman in any sport — who can win against the men.

It's a strange obsession. Ever since tennis player Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, the idea of a woman winning a male-centered sport has fixated the predominately male sports media. There was Annika Sorenstam playing at the Colonial Invitational on the PGA Tour, and then several attempts by Michelle Wie to beat the guys (her U.S. Open local qualifying round was the lead sports story in The New York Times).

The women themselves have shown no such fixation. Katie Hnida made history when she scored two extra points for the University of New Mexico Lobos in a blowout against Texas State, but she never had serious aspirations for the NFL. Other champions such as Venus and Serena Williams have politely declined offers to men's tournaments. Even Annika, arguably the greatest LPGA player of the past three decades, said she enjoyed her PGA Tour experiment but had no desire to try it again.

Most athletes, male or female, don't think about it. They let performance speak for itself. Top female triathletes finish well ahead of most male amateurs. The notion that there is this unquenched thirst to beat all the males in the Iron Man is simply not true.

It's the same in other sports. Maria Sharapova would demolish almost all club players, men and women, but she probably wouldn't fare very well in the men's draw of the Australian Open, nor does she have any burning desire to try. And while Yani Tseng can beat 99 percent of the men who play golf, those who think she obsesses about making it to the PGA Tour fail to understand the mindset of a champion.

Racing is different, and so is Danica. She has never been satisfied being the best or first woman to do this or that, because she has never thought about her sport that way. Even as a teenager racing Formula Vauxhall in England, she rejected the female labels and abhorred anyone who acted like a diva.

Like all truly great athletes, Danica focuses on the numbers and on getting better each and every time she goes out.  

"The honey badger, he doesn't give a crap, he takes what he wants," Danica said at Daytona, jokingly referencing the YouTube video that led to an LSU football player's nickname. "And that's how I'm going to be this year, like a honey badger.  . . . I don't know, it's a mindset. I even have a honey badger picture on my screen saver on my phone to inspire me. It takes what it wants."

She wants to win, but she is also realistic about her first start in the Daytona 500.

According to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owns Danica's Nationwide Series team, "She's been relatively quiet, and that's probably good for her to be able to come in here, work and get everything done she wants to get done."

"I don't just want to be here," Danica said. "I want to run well. For this one at Daytona, I think there's a real opportunity."

Not an opportunity for a female driver, but an opportunity for a driver.