Danica Patrick’s retirement was always to be an invitation to discuss nuance.
That it came in 2018, when an intolerance for complexity pervades not just the world of auto racing, seems fitting.
Patrick was never a straightforward character. Depending on your experience with her humor, she was either standoffish or witty. Depending on your tolerance for her interviews, she was either rambling or transparent.
Depending on how you envisioned the face of women in motorsports (as if any of our visions matter), she was either unworthy of America’s interest—so much so that rival drivers boycotted an autograph session—or worthy of the Hall of Fame for a series in which she never won.
From her first Indianapolis 500 in 2005, when she made two three-wide passes for position yet later received and never could shed a reputation as someone who can “go fast, but can’t race,” it seems no one could quite describe Patrick fairly—on or off the track.
If Patrick’s legacy is anything, it’s a trail of “takes” both over- and understating her as an individual and the role she played in motorsports. It’s that, unable to comprehend someone neither hero nor villain, neither front-runner nor back-marker, we understood Patrick only through myths.
Some speak of Danica Patrick like no woman had ever raced before. Some speak of Danica Patrick like women are and have been equally represented in motorsports for years.
Neither’s true. Patrick was decades late to “breaking barriers” in one sense—she received a license, raced at Indy and Daytona, and won a professional-level race, but others already had done that and more. Simultaneously, Patrick was often the only woman on track.
American history is more about barrier-shifting than it is barrier-breaking. Progress frustratingly pushes barriers when its champions want a gratifying shatter. Civil rights victories in the 1950s and 1960s haven’t negated civil rights work in the 2010s. It would be ridiculous to assert that today’s civil rights movements are meaningless because some fights were already won—or to assert that some fights, seemingly won long ago, aren’t still ongoing as workarounds find new paths to the same problems.
Patrick’s mission—to race professionally—was vastly inferior in importance, yet it is equally absurd to think that, because she did not have to go to court or disguise herself as a man to be allowed to race, all her battles had been fought before.
By some standards, racing had more diverse participants decades ago, when drivers had more control over the means of entering motorsport through a connection to the grassroots, an emphasis on the machine, and an ability to organize. A racing series can no longer ban a woman from the garage; a boardroom can still choose to never sponsor one and keep her out, anyway.
Patrick skipped obstacles others dealt with. Then, she moved some that were still left. In a world where credible voices like Chris Miles, Randy Bethea, or Julia Landauer have lamented that sponsors continually avoid marketing programs that might make sense—sometimes instead backing drivers who look the way they always seem to (not just male, but white, too)—Patrick found a way to make her pitch.
She never faced what those before her did; they never navigated new layers of approval that didn’t exist then. Applauding Patrick needn’t be at the expense of Nice, Stringfield, Christian, Muldowney, Guthrie, Mouton, or St. James.
Applauding them needn’t be at the expense of her.
Measuring talent is fruitless. Even measuring performance is confusing: what role did equipment play, what do strategic wins count for, were fields competitive or weak?
Somehow, it got even worse when it came to assessing Patrick, who was either angrily dismissed as too incompetent to race in the pros or paternalistically patted on the back for mediocrity.
Kyle Petty’s aforementioned view on Patrick not being a racer and those in its lineage are, plainly, unjustifiable. Maybe no one noticed her dicing in an ill-handling car in 2005, barely caught by the cameras and happening mid-race. But surely they saw her wheel-to-wheel, lap-after-lap, to pass Tony Kanaan at Homestead in 2010, overhauling him to finish second by the narrowest of margins after starting outside the top ten. They had to have noticed Patrick’s performances in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and Road America, two of the toughest courses on the tour, and that her best track in the Cup Series was usually Martinsville, where she should have been most out of her element.
I personally watched Patrick race three-wide, up the middle at the flat New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September 2014. It was just a week ago all of us watched her make one last gutsy effort in the Indy 500 time trials, arguably the most demanding four laps of oval racing possible, with the same skill that she used to save a bobble there in 2005.
Patrick was able to mix it up and still maintain a streak of fifty consecutive races running at the finish in the Verizon IndyCar Series. What separated her from the greats was that some combination of setup, equipment, relationships, and weakening spirit kept her from mixing it up at the front or mixing it up each week.
That’s where the applause isn’t needed for a pole at Daytona, which is purely down to the car, or where a Hall of Fame nomination for having seven top-ten classifications in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series isn’t warranted.
It doesn’t have to be that Patrick couldn’t race. It doesn’t have to be that Patrick was the victim of team favoritism or someone who needed to be held to a lower standard than male drivers or, in NASCAR, those who grew up racing stock cars. Patrick beat all of her Andretti Green Racing teammates in the 2009 Verizon IndyCar Series season and had her best years after unification, when fields got larger. She also struggled to make her results match how well she ran, and then stopped running well altogether.
Patrick was a fine driver. On any given day, she could be exciting. She could compete for wins. And on any other, she could be invisible, or even perplexingly off the pace.
Those bad days aren’t erased by the good ones, but then the good ones aren’t erased by the bad ones, either. In the subjective world of assessing ability, that’s one of the only rules to latch onto.
There’s no need to muddle that solace from over-analysis by adding fictions of excess fortune or failure.
Often discussed is Patrick’s impact beyond her career. Denying her influence, one narrative asserts that Patrick held women back through her attitude, sexuality, and lack of race wins. Denying her shocks to the environment, the opposite sees a new generation of Patrick fans racing themselves.
The notion that Patrick made the perception of women drivers worse is foolish. She was no more calculated, egocentric, competitive, or passionate than any male driver, and she was far from the first to struggle to separate the race weekend demeanor from the appearances given to the media. That she posed in magazines made her no different than women in other sports—or Hélio Castroneves (NSFW). That she rarely won makes women no less legitimate competitors than Marco Andretti makes men.
Still, it’s not fair to say that Patrick’s tide lifted all boats. While developing her brand pushed barriers, it also heightened expectations for all those who come after her. In some ways, Patrick is to women what Bill Lester has been to black drivers. Because Lester had an engineering degree and was comfortable in the boardroom, organizations trying to find sponsorship or create programs for racers of color were often met with, “Why not Bill Lester?” For women, the standard is Patrick—if she’s the better investment, the money won’t go elsewhere.
Maybe Sarah Fisher could’ve taken off, putting all that success on short tracks and those flashes of brilliance in IndyCar oval races together to get a win, if Patrick hadn’t stolen the spotlight. Maybe Simona de Silvestro, Katherine Legge, or Bia Figueiredo (then racing as Ana Beatriz) make good on their ladder series stats, more impressive than Patrick’s, if the expectations on them weren’t to be Patrick—and the rushes to get them into the top-tier series weren’t because everyone needed that “next Danica” now.
The names we don’t know yet—ones in a kart or a quarter-midget or a Bandolero—will never be out of Patrick’s shadow. They’ll have to fit into or radically change the off-track expectations, all while exceeding the expectations of those who try to misconstrue Patrick’s career as a data point for every woman’s on-track performance.
In fairness, that’s not Patrick’s fault. She never asked anyone to make her the mold, and if Patrick never makes herself so marketable, she never drives, and the endorsement money from Hostess (yes, the now-health-crazed Patrick really did promote Twinkies) or Secret or GoDaddy or Aspen Dental doesn’t just get sent down the line to someone else.
It’s best to say the tide—inconclusively rising, falling, or level—was conclusively murky. Sometimes, Patrick advanced at the expense of others. Sometimes, she advanced because, if she didn’t, no one else would. Sometimes, she’d fight to prove she could do something, convince everyone, and come up short.
But Patrick cleared her own path. If someone can follow it, great. If someone can’t, they aren’t contending with new obstacles—they’re just shifting the ones Patrick left standing.
Neither would change the career she’s had or its inherent value.
So much about Patrick was personal. “Bitch” isn’t the worst thing she’s been called. But there must’ve been something about her that set TV ratings records for the Indy Racing League and kept the media so fixated.
Patrick won “Most Popular Driver” awards. She went on TV shows few other racing drivers would be considered mainstream enough to do without a clause in a media rights contract mandating it. Fans—kids—wore her shirts. For every TrackForum post about being slighted by her, there were several about how she made someone’s day.
She was intense. She was funny. She was cold. She was emotional. She was poorly spoken. She was paid to talk, commentate, and host. She was too focused. She wasn’t focused enough.
Patrick was accused of being everything, and maybe that’s right. Patrick’s a serious competitor, but she’s refreshingly self-aware. She cared about all her responsibilities and had so many more competing for her attention than most. Her fight to be an equal wasn’t mutually exclusive with her desire to still be herself.
By no means was she perfect. Some interviews seemed unnecessarily adversarial. Some comments she made deflected blame, even passing it along to others. Some people’s perceptions of her weren’t well-managed for someone trying to leverage her name into a whole series of businesses.
That, however, is the appeal. Patrick is raw, honest, and willing to fail in front of us as often as she grew. There’s charm in her snark and something relatable in a few of the things she probably didn’t need to say. She was herself when the world loved her and herself when the world lost interest—or even turned against her.
Not the person her critics or fans invented, Patrick, for being so unique, is oddly normal.
Like a Danica Patrick interview answer, any reasonable discussion of her legacy would be long and somewhat inarticulate. There’s too much to convey at once. Yet, like that 89th Running of the Indianapolis 500, it’s too important—in a sport still debating relevant issues and uncovering still buried history—to ignore or simplify.
Patrick wasn’t the only woman to drive. She wasn’t the first. She wasn’t the most successful, at least not numerically. She was undeniably human. Sometimes, she brought more joy than was rational, or caused more frustration than was needed.
But she mattered.
She mattered to those who met the Indianapolis 500 through her story. She mattered to fans who didn’t let the fact it wasn’t full of highlight-reel overtakes and relentless battles stop them from being thrilled to witness her first win. She mattered if you spent your time at racetracks, on forums, or consuming media, inventing one of the two Danicas that never really existed because you cared so much that what she was matched what you wanted her to be.
She mattered to a world still trying to understand where all our different identities fit into our lives and looking for neat answers, not complicated ones like Danica Patrick.
And that someone can matter—even when they are flawed, even when others have done something sooner or better or in the way someone else would’ve wanted them to do them, even when they don’t meet the needs of whatever argument it is you make to frame the world the way you see it—is, as with Patrick herself, just a little too nuanced.