INDIANAPOLIS -- She was working as a mechanic on her friend's Powder Puff snowmobile racing team in Grand Forks, N.D., when she was set up on a blind date with a competitor named T.J.
They married, settled down in Roscoe, Ill., and on March 25, 1982, they welcomed into the world a little fireball named Danica Sue. She went on to become quite famous.
An hour before Danica Patrick's dramatic Bump Day qualifying run that put her 26th on the grid for the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, Brant James sat with Bev Patrick to get some insight into her groundbreaking, headline-making daughter.
espnW: Did you have any idea what you were getting into when you first took Danica karting?
Bev Patrick: We had started a business five or six years beforehand, and we were working every day and decided we needed to do something fun with the girls, and they were 8 and 10 years old. What should we do? One day we got go-karts and started running around. It was [her sister] Brooke's idea, [but] she never really got into it. After a short time, Brooke quit and Danica was a natural, broke the track record first summer -- Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wis. She was 10.
espnW: When did you realize she had talent?
BP: I guess I was just a little bit more cautious. I was thinking, this is something we'll do for a few years, and she'll go off and do something else. I think T.J. was seeing much more than I was seeing in her driving, because he was a racer. I thought we were all just having fun, and he's like, "She's got talent." We didn't start racing go-karts to develop a race car driver. That wasn't even a thought in our mind. It probably wasn't for the first couple years, and then all of a sudden it was like, "She's really good. We can go anywhere." And I think that was the fun part of our family outings. It went from being an afternoon outing to our local race track to [traveling] cross-country, and doing well any time we went anywhere. And it didn't matter, the competition, the stiffer it got, the better she did. She thrived on stiff competition.
espnW: How hard was it letting her go off to Europe alone as a 16-year-old for 2½ years to race Formula series?
BP: The fact that she got the chance to go to Europe was wonderful. We were excited. We were behind her 100 percent, and as a mom, seeing your 16-year-old at O'Hare, waving, smiling, pulling her suitcase and we're all standing there crying. ... She's smiling and going out into the great world beyond. That part was terribly traumatic, but just the opportunity for her to do it was great. Not everybody gets that chance, and it had its good things and bad things.
espnW: Lots of phone calls, I presume?
BP: Thank goodness the cell phone system is really, really good over there, because we would sit for hours and hours on the phone. It was lonely and it was sad and it was ... she was alone. She went over there by herself. There were even fewer women racers over there at the time than here, so the girlfriends of all the race car drivers didn't really like her because she was a threat at 16 years old for all the wrong reasons. [So] it was good and it was bad, but it was an opportunity we couldn't turn down. We'd gone that far with her. She had shown the potential to possibly do something with it forever, and we had to take it, and let her take it.
espnW: Did you need to be talked into it?
BP: We really didn't need any talking into, the fact of letting her go. The sadness of being a mom and leaving her ... . I remember the first time I went over there, and I'm leaving the airport, I cried so hard at Heathrow that people were stopping and asking me if I was OK. My body was just shaking. It was just so sad.
espnW: How hard was it to send her out into an experience where you knew she was experiencing a lot of resentment, sexism? That's your baby there.
BP: Anything the boys could do, she couldn't do. It was just two different sets of rules. They were very, I feel, behind us as far as male chauvinism. Here, if you're a woman and you can do the job, they're behind you, they're encouraging of that, to sort of see the underdog. Over there it wasn't that way.
espnW: What was Danica like as a child?
BP: She was easy. I think [she and Brooke] did all the normal things. Through grade school it was basketball and volleyball, and in high school it was singing lessons and cheerleading and dance lessons. They tried every little thing to find what their little happy spot was. They were very normal. As she got older -- she left at 16 -- so 13, 14, 15, you know how they're trying to push the edge anyway. So I think Dad had to clamp down and make sure she was on the straight and narrow, because there were already people putting money into her career [and] he knew, if something happened, guilty by association, she could lose her career because she might be with the wrong people even if she wasn't doing the wrong thing. It's hard when you're 14 and 15 to believe your parents and think they're doing the best thing for you. As parents, we were probably nice and strict for her. She thanked us years later.
espnW: Wrong people?
BP: Kids hanging out, maybe drinking, doing whatever. Just on an everyday basis, speeding, anything.
espnW: Who is Danica more like, you or T.J.?
BP: Oh, definitely like her dad. She is very much her father. They feel each other. It's so ironic because we used to go to a lot of races and she'd always say, "I knew where you were, Dad. You were over here, weren't you?" She didn't see him. She could feel him. They are exactly the same. Same passion for racing and if she's upset, he's upset, and if he's upset, she's upset. And they want to please each other the most, too, so it's just that ... it's not a hate relationship, it's just a love-love and they're very passionate.
espnW: How prepared were you and the family for 2005, when Danica finished fourth in the Indy 500 and became a household name?
BP: [That year] was probably the biggest whirlwind ever. We still lived in Roscoe, Ill., and had a business up there and, particularly here at Indy, we were at home working and she was on the track and was fast car every day or right up there every day, and the whole thing was just like a big snowball. It was just exciting, it was exciting to be a part of it and watch her handle it. She'd always been different. In go-kart racing she was always the girl. Even in Europe, if they liked her or not, she was just the girl, but she didn't see that. The audience was bigger here. The media took hold of her and embraced her. It was wonderful.
espnW: How did she handle it?
BP: She had a shell, I called it, when she came home from Europe. She went over there a pretty naive, energetic 16-year-old thinking everybody loves everybody and "Let's all be friends and race hard and have fun," and she came home with a pretty hard shell. It took a year to get through that shell. It was really a character-builder for her.
I think since that time and the popularity and how everybody wants a bit of her, a bit of her time ... she's learned to be able to separate that. It's easy for her to draw the line and say, "Nope, this is my time. Could I do this or that? Nope, because I need my time." To her credit, that keeps her still hungry, keeps her wanting to still want to do it. You don't want to do it to the point where it's, "Really, I have to go to another interview or race or practice or whatever?" She's found what she likes, having enough of her own personal time and enough work time.
espnW: Was that sad, in a way, seeing the shell develop?
BP: We saw it coming. We saw it during the couple years she was over there. We'd go over a little bit, but she'd come back and you'd just kind of see it. You change so much from 16 to 17 to 18 if you're in a normal situation, but if you're in an adult situation in another country without people around you to lean on every day ... .
espnW: What makes her happy?
BP: She has a lot of things she likes and has interest in. She's going to do a lot of things in her life. I don't see this as the only thing she'll ever do. I think as long as she's able to pursue dreams, whether it's this dream or designing clothes or, I don't know. She's got a lot of self-confidence. It's something she's learned. That she can do it, you're in charge of your own destiny no matter how hard it is. She's just a survivor.
espnW: Do portrayals of her in the media get it right?
BP: People ask if she's able to go out to dinner or go here or go there. I think she's very lucky. She's in a really good spot with that. She gets noticed. She gets recognized, but not in a bad way. She gets maybe the good seat at a restaurant, a little extra dessert and all the good stuff. There's very little bad that comes with the notoriety she has. I don't think she could really name anything that's been bad. Maybe just having to be a little bit more conscious of separating yourself and keeping something personal, so you can go out and do what you want without people knowing what you do. She's a homebody really, [likes] to cook and such.
espnW: How will she determine where to race next year?
BP: She said it herself: Wherever she thinks her opportunity to do well is, wherever somebody wants her and she knows they want her for the right reasons. I think people, when they get to know her, that's one thing they know, she wants to win races. It's not all about the money. It's about doing well. I don't care if you get paid $2 million, $10 million or $20 million, if you're not doing well, you're not happy, and that's very true for her. I know she just wants to do well, wherever she ends up. And she wants people to believe in her, and that will be the deciding factor.
espnW: What's the NASCAR experience been like for you?
BP: I've only been to a couple Nationwide races, but it's fun. It's different as far as atmosphere [from] IndyCar. We have a few amenities that it would be nice to have on the other side (NASCAR), with the hospitality and some of those things, because I have nothing to do all day. It's fun. It's interesting. I've always liked all the kinds of racing as well, so, whether it's F1, NASCAR or IndyCar, I really like to watch them all.
espnW: Where would you rather she race?
BP: I think anybody that's ever run IndyCars wants to win the Indy 500. This is the creme de la creme, I think, of any race in the world. And I'd love to see her do it, but it's not my decision and wherever she is happy, she'll do the best job.
espnW: Does Mom get an opinion on the matter?
BP: Nope. And I told her I don't want to know what she's going to do until she's ready for the press release. I don't want to know. I don't want to know something and have to worry about saying something that may get misconstrued.
espnW: So if Danica calls panicked and needs an opinion, has to make a decision, you're not offering one?
A: Nope. I don't want to know. I don't want her decision, and I don't want to make it. And she's not taking it lightly. It's a career-changer, whether she stays or goes. You only get so many opportunities at anything.