Danica Patrick is Pushing the Limits

UPDATED: August 3, 2009
PUBLISHED: August 3, 2009

Danica Patrick thrives on the chase. Driving for
Andretti Green Racing, she’s always in the
hunt, whether it’s climbing up in the rankings,
reigniting fan interest in IndyCar or
amping up her ad campaigns. She is both
one of the most recognized and scrutinized
female athletes in the United States for doing
what she loves: pushing the limits.

Yet as Patrick chases the dream—to win races,
the Indy 500, an IRL championship—veteran drivers
are roaring along with her like jets on takeoff, going
wheel to wheel, 2 inches apart at 220 mph in the heart-
chase thudding world of open-wheel racing. She makes
her living being chased. She knows it. She feels the
media and marketing pros jockeying for position.

“I play hard. I always have and always will,”
27-year-old Patrick says in her 2006 autobiography,
Danica: Crossing the Line, written with Laura Morton
and published by Fireside. “My competitive spirit
never allowed me to lay back and let anyone win.
It still doesn’t. I hope it never will.”As a successful
female driver in a predominantly male sport,
Patrick has raced with “the media monster” since
2005, her breakout year, when she was named Indy
500 Rookie of the Year after becoming the first
woman to lead at The Brickyard. She shattered
several IRL records. In 2008, she made it to Victory
Lane in Motegi, Japan, becoming the first female
IndyCar driver to take the checkered flag. Racing aficionados
coined a new phrase for the hyper-drive attention that followed:
Danica mania.

Proving the Skeptics Wrong
That kind of attention has occasionally prompted other
IndyCar drivers, team owners and beat writers to take shots at
Patrick for her performance as a driver and for her drive to the
spotlight. That never stops her from going out there and flattening
the doubters.

“I’m one of those drivers who feeds off negativity a little bit,
so I took all of the skeptics, all of the naysayers in the media and
all of the people who didn’t believe I could win, and used them
as my inspiration to go out there and show them what I’m made
of,” Patrick says.

That goes for choosing the funny, edgy ad campaigns she’s
been involved with as well. In 2008, she wore a white bikini
for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. In 2009, it was a white
mustache for the “Got Milk” campaign. A TV spot for Boost
Mobile has Patrick in the driver’s seat as her pit crew runs
around in high heels and miniskirts.

While achieving success at a high level is a difficult process,
it’s worth the chase, says Patrick, 5 feet 2 inches and 100 or so
pounds, despite how deceptively tall she appeared on the hood
of a Shelby Cobra in Sports Illustrated. With her animated banter
and direct eye contact, long dark hair, wicked sunglasses and
gripping handshake, she can draw a crowd for autographs so
thick the handlers issue wristbands.

“Success doesn’t just happen. You have to go out there and
make it happen. If you sit around waiting for success, it’ll never
come. In the end, all you’ll be is someone just sitting around
waiting,” she says.

Bring It On
As a competitor, Patrick has that chip on her shoulder that
all champion drivers need to make it, says racing legend Bobby
Rahal, team co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing, which gave
Danica her big break. “She’s not fearful or unwilling to face any
challenge,” he says in Crossing the Line. “She not only wants the
challenge, she looks for it. That’s what champions do. They go
through life with a bring-it-on attitude.”

There may be a chip, but after all, she’s competing in highspeed
poker. If everything seems under control, you’re just not
going fast enough, racing icon Mario Andretti has said.

Consider this unnerving challenge: At any given moment in
an IndyCar race, the total area of all four tires in contact with the
track is about the size of a sheet of notebook paper. If you climb
into the cockpit of a 1,500-pound, high-performance racecar,
you accept that both good and bad can happen, like it did in the
Honda Grand Prix 2009 season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.,
when Patrick crashed out early. (Rookie Raphael Matos tried to
pass her. Both cars crashed.) Some days, it isn’t about you and
your ability—somebody else just makes a move that runs into
your decals.

Patrick’s racing dream began as early as age 9, when she saw
her first go-kart. Her dad, TJ, had raced snowmobiles, midget
cars and motocross bikes, and Patrick and her sister, Brooke,
began racing go-karts as a way for the family to spend more time
together at their home in Roscoe, Ill.

Brooke lost interest; Danica kept going. Once she found her
passion, she had a one-track mind, she says. TJ became her crew
chief, engineer, coach, sponsor and manager while her mom, Bev,
kept statistics. Brooke was also on hand to lend moral support.
During the week, the family was building a successful glass business.
Patrick once told talk-show host David Letterman, the other
half of Rahal Letterman Racing, that her parents sacrificed “time,
money, personal lives” to support her passion. Their message:
Make good decisions. Do what you think is right.

‘Think, Listen and Learn’
“My parents taught me at an early age to trust my gut—to hear
and then listen to that inner voice we all have,” Patrick says in
Crossing the Line. “Dad taught me to think, listen and learn—good
advice that helped me strengthen my instincts. Tapping into those
feelings is the key to making split-second decisions and knowing,
undoubtedly, that you are right.”

At 16, while she was dominating the U.S. karting scene, she
quit high school and went to England to drive Formula-style cars.
Racing there was tough on every level. It was no place for wimps,
crybabies or girly-girls (a line she says she borrowed from Arnold
Schwarzenegger). “One of my greatest lessons was learning you
need to clear the path you walk on for yourself because no one
else is really interested in clearing it for you. They have their own
paths,” she says. After three years, she came back to the States
with a new sense of inner strength.

Patrick went several months without driving. With her dad,
she worked the tracks, looking for a ride, talking to anyone who
would listen. Bobby Rahal saw her potential. “Danica survived
England, which is an extremely competitive environment, one
that is difficult for a strong, confident young man; for a young
woman, it is almost impossible,” he noted in the foreword of
Crossing the Line. “There had been other women who had raced
there before Danica, but it’s a hostile environment at best. That
she was willing to compete there and endure all of the challenges
of racing under those circumstances showed me that Danica was
very certain about what she wanted and would stop at nothing
to achieve it.”

Team Danica
With each racing year, Patrick retains her fierce will
to win but has become more relaxed, she told Sports
’s Dan Patrick (no relation) recently. “I’m not
nervous; I’m good to go for the season. I’ve learned a little
bit from the year before and I’m a little more mature, able to cope
with situations better. As a driver, you grow.”

The professional motorsports world has always included a business
side, and Patrick understands that getting behind the wheel of
her No. 7 orange-and-black Boost Mobile car includes getting in
front of the cameras. Danica Racing Inc. has become big business.
She must carefully balance the demands of professional racing
with the need to garner attention for herself, her team and
her sport. (She also needs time to take care of herself—with
running, yoga and upper-body workouts.) Patrick doesn’t
try to do everything herself; she’s placed her trust in a
team of business professionals who manage the mania.

During a press conference just before the Bombardier
550 race at Texas Motor Speedway in June, Patrick
explained to SUCCESS how her recent association
with IMG (a top sports and entertainment company
with clients such as Tiger Woods, Jeff Gordon, Peyton Manning and
Bob Costas) has helped her develop more brand direction.

“I would love to just go to a select few people and say, ‘sponsor
me,’ but it’s not that easy, so you have to take what comes as well,”
said Patrick, dressed in a black polo, jeans and silver flip-fl ops.
“[With IMG] it’s going really well. I think that ‘Got Milk’ was a really
great thing, the cover of Shape magazine, all these things are really
following in what I represent as a brand.”

Work Hard, Aim High
To preserve and protect the Danica brand, she surrounds herself
with a high-functioning team of family, friends and racing pros.
Her mom, Bev, is often in the pit area during a race; TJ finds a
strategic position somewhere in the stands. Patrick’s husband, Paul
Hospenthal, a professional physical therapist, is a stabilizing force.
The AGR team—engineers, pit crew, mechanics—has worked
extremely hard in 2009 and, as a result, is having a lot of fun
working on the goal to win, she says.

With a strong group doing what they love, she doesn’t have to
sweat the small stuff, like answering the question of whether she’ll
jump to NASCAR at the end of her contract this year with AGR. She’s
keeping her options open. Staying centered.

Dario Franchitti, the 2007 IndyCar Series champion, sees Patrick
in the chase for the championship. “In the past couple of years, I’ve
seen those kinds of fl ashes that could make it happen,” he said at
Texas Motor Speedway. “The next step is to be a regular contender
for wins, week in, week out. I think she’s made tremendous progress.
She’s done a helluva job.”

More young women are getting into karting, and that thrills Patrick,
whose mark on racing the odds is indelible. “I’m pretty much an ordinary
girl who was blessed with extraordinary purpose and ambition…
living proof that if you work hard and aim high, you can do whatever
you set your mind to, even if that makes you different,” she says. “Take
it from me. What makes you different makes you great.”