The first time Danica Patrick raced, she crashed—right into a concrete wall.
“I was 10 years old,” says Patrick, recalling her initiation behind the wheel while growing up in Roscoe, Illinois. “My dad built go-karts and took my sister and me to a parking lot where we set up cans and bottles in a circle. Then we started driving around them, but my brake didn’t work!”
“She hit the wall going about 20 miles per hour and flipped over,” recalls her father, T.J. Patrick, 53. “I thought I killed her.” The crash was scary enough; then the youngster’s puffy coat caught fire after coming in contact with the hot muffler. “I got her out,” T.J. says. “She was OK.”
She also was hooked.
Driving racecars today at 31, Patrick is among the most successful women in auto racing history and, regardless of the gender of her opponents, relishes every opportunity to compete on the track.
“She’s making a huge statement,” says crew chief Tony Gibson, 50. “New fans are coming into our sport because of Danica Patrick.”
Many new fans are girls—a point not lost on Patrick, who makes it a priority to sign autographs for her young fans. “I try to encourage kids to embrace what’s different about them,” Patrick says. “In the end, what makes you valuable to someone is what’s different about you.”
In a sport dominated by men, Patrick garnered attention as an Indy Racing League (IRL) driver by clinching the Indy Japan 300 in 2008, becoming the only woman to win an IndyCar race. At the Indianapolis 500, she finished fourth on her first try in 2005 and, after leading for 19 laps in 2009, came in third to mark the highest finish of any female driver in the famed motorsports event. After switching to stock car racing, she finished fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011 to notch the highest finish of any female and earn the 10th spot in NASCAR’s touring series in 2012.
“She’s got a lot of good things going for her, especially talent,” says fellow NASCAR driver and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 27. “It all starts with talent in racing.”
Competing with Tony Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing team in NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series, Patrick has become both a household name and a famous face, making appearances in TV commercials for godaddy.com and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But for now, her focus is on winning the upcoming Daytona 500, considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR, where last year she finished eighth after setting the fastest qualifying time to become the first female Sprint Cup pole winner.
“I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl,” she told reporters after her historic 45.8-second lap—averaging 196.4 mph—around the 2½-mile track. “I’ve been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things. We have a lot more history to make.”
Patrick grew up with an appreciation for speed and machinery. Her dad met her mother, Bev, on a blind date at a snowmobile race where he was competing and she was a mechanic. “They’ve been together ever since,” Patrick says.
When not running their plate glass company, the couple took Patrick and her younger sister, Brooke, to watch midget and go-kart races, and later the girls raced at nearby tracks such as Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wisconsin. “After four or five weeks, Danica was really picking it up,” T.J. says. “I’d been around racing my whole life, and I knew she was different. She instinctively understood what to do.”
While her early years included more traditional athletic pursuits such as baseball, volleyball, basketball and cheerleading, her passion became go-kart racing. “When she was 13, she wanted us to move to California so she could race year-round,” says T.J., who told her “no” because “we have a business to run.” But seeing her determination, T.J. frequently flew his oldest daughter West to compete in races, where she won numerous regional titles as well as the World Karting Association Grand National Championship in 1994, 1996 and 1997.
At 16, Patrick made a pivotal decision to drop out of high school and move to England to train in Europe’s open-wheel developmental series. “Everybody asked, ‘How could you let her do that?’” T.J. says. “But to me, it was a no-brainer. How could I not let her?”
For three years, Patrick battled homesickness and frequent resistance from male drivers and crewmembers. Looking back, however, most of her experiences as a female in her sport are positive. “I’m perfectly comfortable with guys,” she says. “They’re so easy to be around. Their thoughts are like—golf, hungry, tired. We women can overthink things sometimes.”
Patrick stayed on track through achievements such as her second-place finish at England’s Brands Hatch road course—the highest ever for an American—during the 2000 Formula Ford Festival.
By 2002, she was back in the United States and driving for Rahal-Letterman Racing, a team co-owned by IndyCar Series champ Bobby Rahal and TV talk show host David Letterman. She quickly scaled the elite feeder series and in 2005 earned her IndyCar ride. In 2007, she switched to Andretti-Green Racing, where the next year she took the checkered flag in Japan.
Patrick began dabbling in stock cars in 2010—no small undertaking for a 5-foot-2, 100-pound driver navigating a 1½-ton vehicle around superspeedway ovals. She left the IndyCar Series after the 2011 season to pursue a full-time career in NASCAR.
“From our first meeting, I knew she wanted to race stock cars,” Gibson says. “She has the desire, the heart and the want-to.”
Today, Patrick appears comfortable with her high-profile status. Last year, she ended her seven-year marriage to physical therapist Paul Hospenthal and took criticism in stride as a rookie NASCAR driver. While critics scrutinize her every racing performance, they can’t deny that NASCAR is more interesting with her on the track.
Patrick, meanwhile, stays focused on proving herself at the Daytona 500 and also competing in the Sprint Unlimited Race, the preamble featuring past pole sitters and race winners, run at the Daytona International Speedway the week before the big race.
“It’s so cool to be part of the very first race of the year,” she says. “It will be a great head start to a new season.”