DANICA PATRICK: The Early Years
Danica Patrick has led the US driving contingent in the IRL for the past two years, finishing sixth in the 2008 point standings and fifth in 2009. As Danica rose through the ranks of auto racing since 1999, the role as the leading US driver was held in 1999 by IRL champion Greg Ray, in 2000 by IRL champion Buddy Lazier and throughout the rest of the decade before Danica’s ascendance by Sam Hornish, Jr. (IRL champ in 2001, 2002, and 2006 and leading US point finisher in 2003, 2005, and 2007) and Buddy Rice (leading US finisher in 2004 points in third). Danica is scheduled to embark upon a new phase of her career, stock car racing, in the upcoming Daytona ARCA race. ARA examines the path Danica has followed to reach these lofty heights.
From 1993 through 1997, Danica competed with great success in karting before making her auto racing debut in 1998 British Formula Vauxhall Winter Series competition. She then embarked upon a full season of British Formula Vauxhall championship series racing in 1999, competing on venues such as Brands Hatch, Donington, Oulton Park, Silverstone, Snetterton, and Thruxton. As a racing rookie, her result of ninth in the 1999 point standings with results including a ninth at Brands Hatch were respectable considering the competition. The champion was Gary Paffett, now a DTM star. The runnerup was Ryan Dalziel, currently a successful Rolex Series racer. Third was Rob Bell, now a LeMans Series GT2 star. Behind her in tenth was Hideki Mutoh, her IRL teammate in 2008 and 2009.
In 2000 she contested the British Formula Ford Championship series. The highly-competitive races featured over 30 cars. Danica piloted a Mygale for the semi-works Andy Welch Racing team. Her results during the regular season placed her only nineteenth in points. In the season’s most important race, however, the annual Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch on October 22, 2000, Danica drove for the works Haywood Racing team, starting ninth and finishing second to her teammate and polesitter Anthony Davidson. The result was the best ever in the classic race for a driver from the USA and generated a great amount of publicity. Finishing behind her were such drivers as Rob Bell (sixth), Hideki Mutoh (seventh), Mark Taylor (eighth), Adam Carroll (eleventh), and James Courtney (thirteenth).
Danica’s competitors in the 2000 British season were a competent group; though none have become F1 stars, many have achieved notable success. Courtney had won the 2000 FF regular season championship. He went on to rank fourth in the 2001 British Formula 3 Championship with one win and finished second in 2002 with five wins. He then won the 2003 Japanese Formula 3 title with thirteen wins, ranked sixth in the 2004 Japanese GT series and third in 2005 before moving up to the Australian V8 Supercar series where he ranked sixth in 2008 with one win. Davidson placed third in the 2000 FF championship. He then won seven races en route to the runnerup spot in the 2001 British Formula 3 series and also won international F3 races at Spa and Pau. Anthony Davidson contested twenty-four World Championship F1 races from 2002 through 2008, achieving best finishes of eleventh in three races driving for uncompetitive teams (twice for Minardi in 2002, once for BAR in 2005, and twenty-one starts for Super Aguri in 2007-2008). Mark Taylor, runnerup in the 2000 Formula Ford series, had been 1997 Kent FF Winter Series champion and competed in the 2001 and 2002 British F3 series, placing seventh in 2002 with one win. Taylor came to North America for the IRL Indy Pro Series in 2003 and won seven races en route to the title. He contested the IRL series in 2004, ranking eighteenth. Adam Carroll, seventh in the 2000 FF series, won the supporting class Scholarship Class title of the 2002 British F3 Championship series with fourteen wins and finished second in the overall 2004 British F3 Championship series with five wins. He moved up to the FIA GP2 series in 2005, winning three races en route to fifth ranking. He ranked eighth in GP2 in 2006 and seventh in 2007 with two wins. In the A1 GP series Carroll won three races in 2008 and three races in 2009 en route to the driver point title in 2009. Rob Bell, fifth in the 2000 FF series, was fifth again in 2001 and won the 2001 Formula Renault Winter Championship series title. Bell ranked fifth in 2004 Formula Renault European series points before moving on to GT racing. Bell has won three consecutive (2007-2008-2009) LeMans Series GT2 titles, scoring eleven race wins in the series from 2005 through 2009 plus two 2008 FIA GT Championship GT2 class wins. Hideki Mutoh, twelfth in the 2000 FF series, ranked third in the 2005 Japanese Formula 3 series with three wins, won a Japanese GT Championship series race in 2006, and scored two IRL Indy Pro Series wins in 2007 en route to runnerup in the championship standings. As Danica’s teammate in the IRL, he has ranked tenth in 2008 and eleventh in 2009.
In 2002, Danica won the pro division of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race at Long Beach. Patrick ran a partial season of five Barber Dodge Pro Series races on four street or temporary circuits and one road course, each a ChampCar or F1 venue. She qualified fifteenth on the streets of Toronto and finished seventh, on the lead lap. Future ChampCar star and current NASCAR driver A.J. Allmendinger won the race with current Rolex star Memo Rojas second. Patrick qualified fourteenth on the Cleveland temporary circuit and again finished seventh, on the lead lap. Allmendinger finished fourth. On the Vancouver street circuit, Danica achieved her best result, starting ninth and finishing fourth, on the lead lap. Allmendinger won the race. Mid-Ohio produced an eleventh-place, lead-lap finish from a twelfth-place start. Allmendinger finished third. Another twelfth-place start, this time on the Montreal street circuit, saw her crash out on the tenth lap (of 18), placing twenty-second. Allmendinger won the Montreal race with Rojas second. Her partial season placed her thirteenth in 2002 Barber Dodge Pro Series points. A.J. Allmendinger won the series title.
TABLE 1: Danica Patrick Barber Dodge Barber Saab Pro Results
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Patrick’s breakthrough effort came in 2003 for the Bobby Rahal team in Toyota Atlantic. Her debut race on Mexico’s Monterrey road course produced a podium finish: third place from a fifth place start. Michael Valiante won the race. The podium finish was the first ever for a woman in Toyota Atlantic competition! She qualified only tenth on the Long Beach street circuit and crashed out after nineteen laps, placing fourteenth. 2003 Barber Dodge Pro Series champion A.J. Allmendinger won the race. Milwaukee was the only oval on the 2003 schedule and in her first-ever oval race Danica finished on the lead lap, in sixth, after starting seventh. Ryan Dalziel was the Milwaukee victor in a close finish with Kyle Krisiloff. Laguna Seca began from ninth on the starting grid but ended on the first lap with contact involving Stephan Roy and Joey Hand. Allmendinger won. Patrick qualified tenth for Portland and finished sixth, on the lead lap. Ryan Dalziel was the victor. The unique Cleveland temporary airport circuit with its wide track configuration was next up. Danica again qualified tenth but this time finished fifth, on the lead lap, her second Top Five finish in six races. Allmendinger won the race.
Canadian street circuits were next on the schedule and produced victories for A.J. Allmendinger. Toronto saw her qualify ninth and finish tenth, on the lead lap. Danica found the historic Trois Rivieres street course more to her liking, however, qualifying a 2003 season-best fourth and finishing fifth. The traditional Mid-Ohio road course followed; Danica qualified a 2003 season-worst eleventh and finished tenth, on the lead lap. Michael Valiante edged Ryan Dalziel for the victory. Then came the Montreal street circuit, producing a seventh-place, lead-lap finish from a fifth-place start. Allmendinger completed his sweep of the Canadian street circuits.
Two more street circuits completed the 2003 season. Danica qualified seventh on the Denver streets but finished fifth, on the lead lap. Allmendinger won again. She completed the season in style on the Miami street course, qualifying fifth and finishing a strong second to Michael Valiante, missing victory by only 1.209 seconds. Ryan Dalziel finished third, Jon Fogarty fourth.
All told, Danica’s twelve-race 2003 Toyota Atlantic season produced two podium finishes-a third in the first race and a runnerup finish in the season finale, five Top Five finishes, ten Top Ten finishes, and only two retirements, each caused by accidents. She completed every lap of the ten races she finished. Her average finish was 7.16 but discounting the two accident-caused retirements her average finish was 5.90. Danica’s average start was 7.67, with a best start of fourth at Trois Rivieres and fifth-place starts at Monterrey, Montreal, and Miami. Patrick finished sixth in the 2003 point standings, one point ahead of Joey Hand. A.J. Allmendinger won the title with 201 points by 26 points over Ryan Dalziel with Michael Valiante third with 161.
At midseason in 2003, Patrick had her first taste of sports car/GT competition, driving a Prodrive Ferrari 550 Maranello GTS entry in the Road Atlanta American LeMans Series race. Partnered with veteran competitor Jerome Policand, Danica finished tenth overall and fourth in class, three laps down on the class winners.
Danica again contested the Toyota Atlantic series in 2004 for Rahal. The season opened at Long Beach and produced a better result than in 2003, as Danica started sixth and finished fifth. The Monterrey road course saw Danica post her best qualification yet, third, and she finished third to post the third podium finish of her Toyota Atlantic career. As in 2003, Milwaukee was the only oval on the schedule. Danica started sixth (versus seventh in 2003) and finished fourth (versus sixth in 2003) to earn her first Top Five oval finish! Portland’s two-day doubleheader produced more milestones as Danica qualified third for the second time and finished second for the second time in her Atlantic career in race one, this time by 7.459 seconds to future Rolex DP star Jon Fogarty. Patrick then won the pole for Portland’s second race, scoring the first-ever pole for a woman in the Atlantic series! She went on to finish seventh in the race. Danica was the series point leader at this juncture, marking the first time a woman had led the point standings in the Atlantic series!
Danica posted her worst qualification of the 2004 season, eighth, on the Cleveland airport circuit but rebounded to finish third, scoring her third podium finish of the first six 2004 races. It was then time for the back-to-back Canadian street circuit races, this time with Vancouver following Toronto. Patrick started fifth at Toronto and finished fourth, then started sixth at Vancouver and again finished fourth. The long and fast Road America road course was part of the schedule in 2004, and Danica started sixth and finished fourth, giving her a string of three consecutive fourth-place finishes. Denver’s street circuit was next up, with Danica starting sixth for the third consecutive race. Patrick set Fast Lap in the race en route to a fifth-place finish. A return to Montreal saw Danica qualify third (her best qualification since the Portland race two pole six races earlier) and finish fourth, giving her a streak of six consecutive Top Five finishes! The season ended at Laguna Seca, and although Danica qualified fourth she finished eighth, posting her worst finish of 2004.
Patrick’s 2004 Toyota Atlantic season produced significant improvement over 2003. Danica finished all twelve races, completing every lap of the season! She posted three podium finishes (a runnerup and two thirds), an improvement of one over 2003, ten Top Five finishes, an improvement of five over 2003, and twelve Top Ten finishes (the worst an eighth), an improvement of two over 2003. Danica earned her first Toyota Atlantic pole and set her first Toyota Atlantic Fast Lap as well. Her average finish was 4.42 (versus 7.16 in 2003) and her average start was 4.75 (versus 7.67 in 2003). Nine of the twelve 2003 venues also were part of the 2004 season schedule (Monterrey, Long Beach, Milwaukee, Laguna Seca, Portland, Cleveland, Toronto, Montreal, and Denver) and at each venue Danica either matched or bettered her 2003 start and finish in 2004. On eight of the nine venues Danica achieved either a podium or Top Five finish in 2004; she failed only at Laguna Seca, where she finished eighth in 2004 after crashing out in 2003. A minor negative to 2004 was that the final six races of the season were slightly off the pace of her first six races of 2004; she achieved her podium finishes and her pole in the first six races of 2004.
Patrick finished third in the 2004 point standings with 269 points. Jon Fogarty won the title with 327 over Ryan Dalziel’s 309. Behind Danica were such drivers as Andrew Ranger (later to compete in ChampCar and now a two-time NASCAR Canadian Tire champion) and Ronnie Bremer (another ChampCar competitor).
In retrospect, the venue scheduling of the 2003 and 2004 Toyota Atlantic seasons might not have been the most useful preparation for Danica’s IRL career. The twenty-four races contained only two oval events, each at Milwaukee.
It has been noted that Danica failed to win any of her twenty-four Atlantic series starts and that in subsequent years Katherine Legge and Simona DeSilvestro scored race victories in the series. Nevertheless, Legge, third in 2005 points behind Charles Zwolsman and Tonis Kasemets, and DeSilvestro, third in 2009 points behind John Edwards and Jonathan Summerton, only equalled Danica’s 2004 point ranking in their best championship results. In Legge’s case, the subsequent careers of Zwolsman and Kasemets have not matched those of Danica’s 1-2 2004 competitors Fogarty and Dalziel and Legge has moved onto the DTM after ChampCar. In the case of DeSilvestro, the 2009 Atlantic series was short on car count but Edwards and Summerton are impressive competitors and potential future stars and the same must be said of DeSilvestro.