Star has become one of the racing world's biggest stars.
INDIANAPOLIS - Danica Patrick headed off to England at the tender age of 16, determined to prove she could race just as fast as the boys.
She quickly learned that she couldn’t act like one of the boys.
“It’s a double standard,” conceded Bobby Rahal, who is Patrick’s car owner and mentor. “It’s OK for the boys to be out raising hell, but it’s not OK for a woman. When a guy is seen with a different girl every night, he’s a stud. When a girl is seen out with a different guy every night, she’s a tramp.”
Patrick has always stood out at the speedway, a woman in a testosterone-driven world. It’s worked to her advantage at times, opening up doors that might have been closed to a similarly skilled man, but it’s also put up plenty of roadblocks along the way.
Even now, having proved she belongs with a landmark fourth-place finish in last year’s Indianapolis 500, Patrick heard a familiar sentiment in the prelude to Sunday’s race when stock car icon Richard Petty said women have no business getting behind the wheel.
“I would hope that last year showed I have the speed and I can race,” Patrick said, choosing her words carefully. “I have to wonder why he said it.”
Of course, Petty isn’t the first one to say it, and he’s certainly not the only one who gives off a women-not-welcome vibe around the garage.
Rahal first met Patrick about a year after she got to England to compete in the cutthroat Formula Ford series. He was impressed by her talent, courage and determination, but he also heard stories about her character away from the track.
She drank. She partied. She dated around.
“Yes, she had that reputation,” Rahal said. “What 16- or 17-year-old wouldn’t be out partying when they’re 5,000 miles away from their parents and don’t have anyone checking to see if they’re in bed? But some people didn’t think too highly of it.”
It didn’t really matter that Patrick was acting like a typical teenager. No one cared that all the boys she raced against were doing the same sort of things, or worse. In the image-conscious, male-dominated sport of racing, she had to clean up her act.
And what did Patrick think or that mandate?
“Initially, she thought it was unfair,” Rahal remembered. “Well, life’s unfair. She lives in a fishbowl. That’s unfortunate, but that’s her reality. I think that’s why she was so private about her life when she made it” to the Indy Racing League last year.
Behind the dazzling looks, charming personality and willingness to do just about anything she can to promote open-wheel racing, the 24-year-old Patrick has put up a wall that few people can get over.
When she slipped off to marry her physical therapist boyfriend last year, the folks at Rahal-Letterman Racing were instructed to release virtually nothing about the ceremony. No pictures showed up in the National Enquirer. No one got a chance to critique the color of the bridesmaid dresses or scrutinize the guest list.
Patrick traces her guarded demeanor to the trying days in Formula Ford, when she got serious about racing but admittedly made some poor choices.
No one was around to steer Patrick in the right direction. While her parents OK’d the decision to quit high school so she could pursue her racing dream, they remained in America to tend to their business. As if growing up away from home wasn’t tough enough, Patrick also dealt with blatant sexism in Britain’s racing culture. Engineers wouldn’t help her. Fellow drivers scorned her.
“The environment she was in was pretty hostile,” Rahal said, “especially for an American woman — or a woman, period.”
In her new autobiography “Danica: Crossing The Line,” she writes about the life-changing choices she was forced to make after her sponsor threatened to cut off the money if she didn’t quit acting like, well, just another guy.
She stopped drinking, started working out and became more aloof.
“It made me a much tougher person,” Patrick said. “It also made me more closed off. I became less open about some things. I learned not to talk about everything that was on my mind or all the things going on in my personal life.”
Patrick was even more blunt in her book.
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