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Danica Patrick comes to town

When I went to interview Danica Patrick this week, I didn't know who I'd be talking to.

When I went to interview Danica Patrick this week, I didn’t know who I’d be talking to.

It’s the way of the world with professional athletes these days. They are so well media-trained that you don’t know whether you’re going to get an honest answer to a question or the company line.

Jimmie Johnson, the three-time NASCAR champion, came to Toronto a few years ago and was impressive. In his answers about auto racing, he made references to the Toronto Blue Jays, the premier of Ontario and the TTC.

I asked him where all that had come from.

“They brief me on local issues when I go somewhere,” he said – “they” being his public-relations people.

So when I went to the Canadian International AutoShow on Wednesday, where Danica Patrick was appearing on behalf of Honda Canada to promote July’s Honda Indy Toronto (good tickets available at hondaindytoronto.com), I was curious as to which Danica I would get: down-to-earth friendly or rigid-stick-to-the-script.

We interrupt this narrative to bring you the following information, just in case you’re one of the two people reading this today who don’t know who 26-year-old Danica Patrick is:

After starting in karts when she was 10 and working her way through the junior formulae, she shot to auto racing prominence in 2005 when she won three poles in the Indy car series and came close to winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500. She started fourth in the 33-car field that year and eventually finished fourth after becoming the first woman to lead laps in the world’s most famous race.

Last year, she became the first woman to win an Indy car race when she beat Helio Castroneves to the checkered flag in the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi speedway. That, plus numerous endorsements of women’s products and two appearances wearing a bikini in the famous Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue have made her as much a personality as a racing driver.

As it turns out, both Danicas showed up this week.

In the public press conference portion of the day, she said all the right things: she was really excited about being in Toronto, the circuit is challenging, the fans are friendly and knowledgeable and the event promises to be wonderful.

It was only after I got her alone (yes, in a room, the two of us, by ourselves) that she seemed to relax a little bit – particularly after I asked if she had any male groupies following her around.

She does.

Does she plan to have children someday?

No.

Did she really plan to punch Ryan Briscoe in the eye after he knocked her out of last year’s Indy 500?

Not really.

Had she ever been to Toronto before she started racing? (She made her first professional start driving for Bobby Rahal in the Barber Dodge Pro Series race at the Molson Indy in 2002 following several years apprenticing in England, during which she finished second in the famous Formula Ford Festival.)

As a matter of fact, she had.

“I was 18 or 19 and one day three of my friends and I were sitting around the pool in Chicago and we decided to just take off. So we loaded up the car and headed for Toronto.

“I took a wrong turn when we got to the outskirts and wound up going north and I said, `This doesn’t look like downtown.’ So we got off the highway and stopped at a Starbucks and got a phone book and called around and we wound up staying at the Holiday Inn on King, right in the middle of everything.

“We went out and had a great time.”

I asked her about the stories linking her to a new Formula One team that’s supposed to be officially announced in the U.S. Tuesday. She’d said during the public press conference that she didn’t know anything about it.

“I don’t mind people talking about me being in the news or what I could be doing in the future,” she told me. “But I like where I am. I think all the top formulas are pretty equal. I mean, it’s been proven, with drivers making shifts and moves to different things, that none of the series are easy.

“I don’t want to drive a different car or someone’s else’s car just to drive it. I would do it if I was seriously considering it but otherwise, I’m not out there to waste anyone’s time – or my own.”

Patrick is tanned (she lives in Phoenix with her husband) and fit. She’s small though, at 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds. How does she stay in shape to wrestle a 320 km/h missile around a speedway, particularly when there’s no power steering on the car?

“There’s nothing like being race-fit,” she said. “There’s no way to recreate G-forces and what that does to you. So you really have to get back into the car to get race-fit.

“But in the off-season, as well as working out and staying strong, it’s important to take time off. The body gets tired so a break is good.”

As she’s in the last year of her contract with Andretti-Green Racing, I asked if she was negotiating a new one.

“Not yet, but there’s lots of time,” she said. “But any time the contract comes around, you really have to weigh out your options. You have to see what the interest level is from other people and what their offers would entail, but most important, when you’re faced with the possibility of doing something for months and years that you particularly don’t want to do, you go with your heart.

“Which is why I’ve always stayed in Indy car. I truly enjoy it and I really want to win the Indy 500.”

And what about those babies?

“No, no, no,” she laughed. “I’m a race car driver. We have a six-point harness and nothing else fits in there. The belts sometimes don’t fit. They say, `You have a big dinner last night?’ I can gain one pound and they know it. So no, that’s something only for after racing, if at all.”

And what about that long walk down pit road at last year’s Indy 500, after Briscoe drove into her and knocked her out of the 500? She was headed off by a security guard, but was she really going to hit him?

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I wanted to ask him what he thought he was doing. The adrenaline was flowing pretty good, though. Maybe it’s just as well that I didn’t get down there.”

Norris McDonald writes about motorsport each week in Wheels. nmcdonald@thestar.ca

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