By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS, May 26 (Reuters) – As far as retirement parties go it is doubtful there has been one bigger than the bash that will be thrown for Danica Patrick when the ‘Queen of Speed’ ends her career on Sunday at the Indianapolis 500.
As many as 300,000 plus spectators are expected to fill the grandstands of the sprawling 2.5 mile oval for the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ and many of those will be there to say goodbye to motorsport’s most celebrated woman driver.
The only woman to win an IndyCar race and start from pole at the Daytona 500, the 36-year-old American announced last November that she had reached the end of the road and would bring the curtain down on her ground-breaking career with the “Danica Double” contesting the Daytona and Indy 500s.
As far as swansongs go, February’s Daytona 500 was a bust, ending in a wreck, but the Indy 500 holds out the promise of something special.
During a 14-year career, evenly split between IndyCar and NASCAR, it was the Indy 500 that provided most of the material for Patrick’s career highlights reel and made her one of North America’s most recognisable athletes.
Her third-place finish in 2009 remains the best result by a woman in the Indy 500 while her resume also includes coming fourth in 2005 on her rookie debut and sixth in 2006.
A fierce and fearless competitor, Patrick has also led 29 laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway another high water mark for women drivers.
“What I will remember most will be my first Indy 500 and, God, I hope I will remember my last one even more,” Patrick told Reuters, rating her Indy 500 debut ahead of her 2008 win at Motegi. “That would be my goal.
“But the first Indy 500 is what I will remember most, the most defining time in my career and the most fond memories.”
For a time Girl Power was all the rage at the Brickyard, with four women sprinkled through the 33-car starting grids in 2010, 2011 and 2013.
But this year Patrick, back in her trademark GoDaddy electric green Chevrolet, will carry the flag alone.
While standard bearer is a familiar role for Patrick, it is not one she embraces. Rather than being an advocate for women’s causes, Patrick prefers to inspire.
She says when it came to racing she never sought out mentors nor does she want the job.
“I’ve never been a driver that wants a mentor,” said Patrick. “But I am always encouraging people to find what it is they are passionate about and love and that is what is going to give them the ability to persevere through the hard times and have that chance for greatness.
“Whether they are a guy or girl, whether they want to be a race car driver or an astronaut, it’s about finding what it is that you love.”
Patrick understood early on what it would take to survive in the high-testosterone macho world of motorsport.
She did not want to be labelled a “woman” driver but did not want people to forget it either.
For a while Patrick’s racy photo shoots, including appearances in two Sports Illustrated swim suit editions, drew as much attention as her driving.
From the start Patrick had a firm grasp of exactly what her storyline was and used it to build her brand.
“I’m here largely because I am woman,” she said. “I don’t want people to forget that I am a girl, I don’t think they really can, and I don’t want them to because it is part of my story.
“It’s what put me here in this position today and has given me all the opportunities I have had, at least in part.”
Just 5-foot 2-inches and 100 pounds, the diminutive driver asked for no quarter and offered none.
At the 2007 Milwaukee Mile, unhappy about a late race encounter with the late Dan Wheldon, Patrick climbed out of her car and marched down the pit lane where she confronted the Briton, grabbed him by the arm and then shoved him.
“You can’t be a pushover in your job and I can’t be a pushover in mine,” said Patrick. “If you want to climb the ladder and do great things you have to believe in you and get people to believe in you.
“You have to be sure of what you want.”
Win or lose on Sunday, Patrick will exit having won the respect of everyone up and down pit lane.
“She’s been carrying the flag for the female drivers in IndyCar and she certainly belongs there,” Sebastian Bourdais, a past IndyCar champion and Formula One driver told Reuters. “She proved that she belongs in IndyCar.
“I hope for sure she will have a good last race.”