On Sunday, Danica Patrick will take to the Indianapolis motor speedway for one last time – in her final motor race. It seems fitting that 13 years after she made her name at the speedway by leading with a handful of laps to go, Patrick will drive the standout green colours associated with much of her later career for one final time.
Over in Europe, she is not a particularly big name. She was rumoured to be testing a F1 car a decade ago, but nothing came of it. She is perhaps better known for her face than for her exploits on the track.
However, as a teenager, she was handy in a Formula Ford, finishing second in the Festival in 2000. Her career on this side of the pond was somewhat brief. Before she had a chance to make a head on the path to Formula 1, she was gone.
In the United States, she rose to fame as she became the first woman to ever to win an Indycar race. She remains, to this day, the only woman to achieve that feat, as well as starting from pole position.
It is 40 years this year since Janet Guthrie achieved her first finish at the Indy 500, and things were certainly different back then. Guthrie stunned as she finished ninth – a good result regardless and stunned further when she revealed that she drove the thing one-handed following a wrist injury. This was in a period when “women can’t drive 500 miles”, or so the men said.
Patrick made a massive impact in the 2005 race, by leading with a handful of laps to go, before dropping down to fourth, with the race being won by the late Dan Wheldon. Nevertheless, it’s the strongest result for a woman at the 500. Danicamania was very much in full swing after that.
Women in Indycar have proven to be pretty successful, and Patrick remains to this day the most decorated of the lot. Seven top-three finishes, three pole positions and Rookie of the Year honours in the series and at the 500 in 2005 in seven years is a solid achievement.
It is easy to overlook her sole win (in the 2008 Motegi race in which the Champ Car teams were absent – the final act of the ‘Split’ era) as a good strategy call. It’s true that it was, but she lost races in her career through the inverse. It’s all part of Indycar racing.
Patrick at her peak was a consistent frontrunner. She finished in the top five in the championship in 2009, which is absolutely no mean feat. In that season, she was the top of the Andretti Green Racing drivers, which included 2004 series champion Tony Kanaan. She was able to fight some of the men who have become among the greatest in the history of the series, and occasionally beat them.
And then came NASCAR. It’s pretty clear that Patrick’s career in stock cars was not as she had hoped. One pole position (albeit for the Daytona 500 – again, the first women to achieve that particular feat) and zero wins to her credit. She called it a day at the end of 2017, with the 2018 Daytona 500 being her swansong. It, almost ironically, ended in a wreck in which Patrick was blameless.
She is not the only driver to switch disciplines from Indycar/open wheel to NASCAR and flop. Former team-mate Dario Franchitti is a fine example of this being the case in his short Cup stint in 2008, while (despite winning a race in his first year) former F1 star Juan Pablo Montoya also did not have the success he would have liked.
There is certainly a case to be made that Patrick overstayed in NASCAR. However, her stock had fallen so much in recent years that a switch back to Indycar was effectively impossible.
While Patrick was very popular, she also had her fair share of critics to deal with through the years – be it fellow drivers, team bosses or fans. Despite this, she was one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers in the era from the end of the Split and in the early years of reunification.
But why does she deserve to go down as a great?
She is no Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon or Will Power. Each of those guys deserve to be in the top bracket of all-time Indycar greats along with names as Foyt, Gurney, Andretti and Unser.
But results alone do not always define greatness. In another era, she may have had a championship-delivering career, let alone more than a single victory. It’s not her raw speed which warrants such a position, but her work in and out of the car, and the fact that she has helped inspire a number of young, American girls to try and make it in motorsport.
Her IndyCar return will feel all too brief, come the end of the race on Sunday. By hurling her Ed Carpenter Racing-run Dallara-Chevrolet into the top nine on the first day of qualifying (the only one-off entry to do so), it almost felt as if she never went away. She will start the race from a very credible seventh on the grid. It certainly gives the impression that moving to NASCAR and sticking with it was a woeful career choice.
The subject of women in motorsport remains a contentious one, remarkably. Talks of a ‘women’s-only championship’ being required can be quashed by simply saying “well, Danica Patrick was able to mix it with the boys, and on her day, in Japan, she won”.
And the influence she, like Sarah Fisher, Pippa Mann, Katherine Legge and Simona de Silvestro, have had on young girls since the turn of the millennium may well ultimately result in a time where we no longer speak of Patrick as the only woman to win in IndyCar. And that may be the biggest impact her legacy will have on motorsport.