Danica Makes the Grade
On April 20, 2008 Danica became the first woman ever to win an IndyCar race when she triumphed at Motegi, Japan, in her 50th IRL start. And the media floodgates opened. In the following days, she appeared on just about every major TV talk show in the US. She was more in demand than any movie star that week.
The Face of IndyCar
herself, she said, “It was an exciting week. It was a lot of fun. I never mind doing a lot of these live shows and talking to people like
David Letterman. It’s not a bad gig.”
The Danica Brand
certainly doubles that with her many endorsements and TV commercials for everything from the GoDaddy.com website to Tissot watches.
She has somehow accomplished the dual feat of becoming both a role model for young girls and a sex symbol for their fathers. She recently won the 2008 Kids’ Choice award as favourite female athlete, while at the same time she was named sexiest athlete by Victoria’s Secret and she has twice made it onto FHM’s 100 hottest women list (ranked number 85 in 2007).
So it is that she drives for powerhouse Andretti-Green Racing, winner of three of the past four IRL titles, whereas the wholesome Fisher struggles to put together financing for her own team. Which begs the question of whether Danica’s success is unique or can serve to benefit other women in the sport.
Helping the Gender
Limoges, 24, from Longueuil, was Quebec’s Formula 125 karting champion in 2001 and in 2007 became the first female driver ever to earn a pole in the Grand-Am Koni Challenge sedan series. She had a best finish of fourth, driving a Ford Mustang. She is currently on the sidelines as her team, Black Forest Racing, prepares a new car, but she expects to be back in action before the end of the season.
On the same weekend as Danica won in Japan, Swiss miss Simona de Silvestro staked her claim to future fame by winning the Mazda Atlantic race at Long Beach. The 19-year-old is currently second in the championship. Even Danica, who spent two years in Atlantics (2003-04), never won in that category.
The one previous female Atlantic winner was Katherine Legge, from England, who took three victories in 2005, but then spent two rather disappointing seasons in Champ Car. She now races touring cars for Audi in the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisters) in Germany.
Certainly, there are more women in racing today than ever before and Danica hopes that she is at the forefront of an estrogen-fueled march into the future.
“There might be girls that come along that start blowing me out of the water,” she said at a news conference following her Japanese triumph. “I hope not, but I think that that’s what’s going to show 20 years from now. I’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, that was the start of a major wave.’
“I’m part of a wave of women who are doing different things, great things outside of the normal. I don’t think it’s just me. I think it’s just showing that we are capable of anything. And vice-versa. There’s so much more gender crossover now than there has ever been. It speaks to women and to people breaking the mold. I’m part of a really big picture.”
Danica has always said she thinks of herself as a race driver like any other, just one who happens to be a woman. Still, she was happy to embrace the historic nature of her win, which her IndyCar predecessor Lyn St. James compared to Billie Jean King’s momentous tennis triumph over Bobby Riggs in the 1970s.
“I do recognize that it’s history. It’s going to be one of those things that’s remembered. It’s a first and firsts are always in history books. I’ve definitely thought about that. It’s probably one of the things I thought about as a girl — that it would be nice to be the first female to win in history, since history goes on for a pretty long time. I’m really honoured that Lyn would say it’s the biggest thing since Billie Jean King. That’s a big deal.”
Danica, who was born in Wisconsin and raised in Illinois, began driving karts when she was just nine years old. Her father, TJ Patrick, an avid snowmobile racer, bought karts for both his daughters. His youngest, Brooke, did not take to the sport, but Danica was quickly hooked and as a teen, set various track records for her age group, while dicing with the likes of Sam Hornish Jr.
She dropped out of school at age 16 after she secured sponsorship to go to England to race in Formula Vauxhall and later Formula Ford. She established her reputation by finishing second — behind recent F1 driver Anthony Davidson — in the worldwide Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 2000. Returning to North America, she signed a three-year contract to drive for the team of Bobby Rahal.
In two seasons in Atlantics, she finished sixth (2003) and third (2004) in the championship with five podium finishes and one pole. She then moved into IndyCars with Rahal/Letterman Racing in 2005 and in just her fifth start she became an overnight media darling as she came so close to winning the Indy 500.
“I was more emotional about it than I expected to be,” she said. “I expected to be relieved and I was, but I didn’t think I was going to cry. What a relief, you know? We all have dreams of being the best and being victorious. Dreams really do come true. You just have to be persistent.”
She does not think Motegi was necessarily her best race — it was determined largely by fuel conservation strategy — but said, “You take every win you can possibly get.” She recalls what former teammate Bryan Herta told her. “At Mid-Ohio last year, when I had my first front-row on a road course, he said: ‘The day you win your first race, you’re not going to be doing anything different. It’s just going to happen.’ And it’s true.”
For three straight years, Danica has been voted the most popular driver in the IRL — no surprise, given the long line-ups for her autograph every weekend — and her Canadian fans will get the chance to see her in person when the series races for the first time on this side of the border at Edmonton on July 26.
She last raced in Canada at Montreal in August, 2004, when she was fourth in the Atlantic event (narrowly edging local favourite Andrew Ranger). She claims to have a special fondness for this country and not just because she is an avid music fan whose favourite artist is Ottawa-born Alanis Morrisette.
“I always love going to Canada,” she said during a recent teleconference. “The Canadian fans are always so genuine, so excited and so knowledgeable. I’m looking forward to going back.”races for the first time on this side of the border at Edmonton on July 26.