INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — With Danica Patrick in North Carolina racing stock cars, the Indianapolis 500 will go off on Sunday without an American woman in the field for the first time since 1999.
That’s just one of the problems facing her former series, but it’s not really her problem.
Patrick has moved on to NASCAR, and can’t worry about what she left behind.
“I was ready to leave IndyCar. I wanted to be here,” she said from Charlotte Motor Speedway, where she’ll race in Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600.
“When you are not missing something, longing for something, you don’t really think about it that much. It’s like that girlfriend you didn’t want to have anymore. You don’t think about her anymore. Or ex-husband. You just don’t. Indy, I have lots of great memories from there and probably the part of me that doesn’t feel quite as longing for it is that there is still a chance that I could do it again. It’s not gone.”
It makes for a strange situation this weekend regarding Patrick.
She’s not in Indianapolis for the first time in seven years, but she’s still been a topic of conversation at various points since the track opened May 9.
James Hinchcliffe, her replacement in the Go Daddy car, flirted with the pole and will start second in Sunday’s race. It’s been a breakthrough month for Hinchcliffe, who is started to build his own brand and establish his identity as both a colorful character and a skilled driver.
It had been hard in IndyCar for drivers to emerge from Patrick’s shadow as she dominated the media spotlight. It exploded in 2005, when she finished fourth in her Indy debut and actual winner Dan Wheldon felt compelled to have a T-shirt made that said “Actually `Won’ The Indy 500″ to poke fun at the attention Patrick was receiving.
The series has struggled to develop stars since and her departure creates the overdue opportunity.
“You’ve got so many other guys in here that deserve a chance, that have a story or have a personality,” said Graham Rahal. “If she were here, you probably wouldn’t be talking to any of them. It’s good for all the other guys to get a chance at it now.”
In NASCAR, Patrick is embraced throughout the industry and welcomed in the garage by drivers willing to help her adjust. Everyone recognizes that Patrick brings more exposure to NASCAR, and the 6 percent increase ESPN has seen in its Nationwide Series ratings this season has got to be at least partially because of her.
So in that sense, IndyCar’s loss in NASCAR’s gain.
“Danica brought a lot of interest from people that were not really involved in racing,” said former Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever, an analyst for ABC’s race day broadcast. “My daughter follows Danica Patrick, whether she’s racing here or somewhere else. But there are a lot of very talented drivers in IndyCar, and I think the series will just pick up and keep on going forward.”
Cheever’s daughter is just one example of the reach Patrick has with casual sports fans and young girls. When Patrick returned to the go-kart track she raced at as a kid, she was surprised to see that “30 to 40 percent” of the karters that day were girls.
But they struggle to make it to the top levels, at least in America.
Patrick and Johanna Long are the only two females racing in one of NASCAR’s top two levels. Patrick on Sunday night will become the first woman since Janet Guthrie in 1976 to race in the Coca-Cola 600.
In IndyCar, where Sarah Fisher has become a mother and is now running her own race team, there are no active American women drivers. Sunday’s field in the Indy 500 has three women, Katherine Legge, who is British, Simona de Silvestro from Switzerland and Brazilian Ana Beatriz.
Patrick speculates that the low numbers are based on a shallower talent pool, and there will be more women racers as the years go on.
“If it takes one out of a hundred guys to find a good one — I’m just using a random number — one out of hundred girls takes a hell of a lot longer than a guy,” she said. “It just takes more time. I’m sure that there are all kinds of different genders and ethnicities out there trying racing. I think that in general as a culture in this country we are very open to new and different things. It is just going to take time.”