The name has become a synonym for unfulfilled potential, the definition of the female athlete whose performance does not measure up to her sex appeal, the mere mention of Anna Kournikova an obvious insult.
And yet Danica Patrick does not bristle in the slightest at the implication that at 25 and without a pro racing victory, she could be headed down the same road.
Perhaps it is because Patrick is seemingly much closer to that victory than Kournikova, the now-retired Russian tennis player, could ever hope to be. Or perhaps it is because Patrick does not see it as an insult.
“She wasn’t all that bad,” Patrick says good-naturedly. “She was pretty darned good at tennis and obviously a pretty girl.
"That’s where people seem to think if you’re really popular and famous, you’re supposed to be doing certain things. Other people set the rules on how successful you’re supposed to be and it’s not that easy. As a result, some people are under-publicized for how good they are and some people are over-publicized, but we can’t control that as athletes.”
Patrick, who races at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday in the Peak Antifreeze 300, the IndyCar Series season finale, has received as much publicity during the course of her three-year career as any veteran could hope to have. She will not pretend it hasn’t been mostly positive.
“If I was a guy from the beginning, I have no idea where I’d be now,” she says. “I like to think I got here being who I am. I’ve gotten some negative stuff, but what makes us go is our sponsorship and I definitely have an edge as a female when it comes to marketing. There are still a lot of positives being a girl.
“I do feel badly for (Kournikova). ...It’s sad that her (sex appeal) overshadowed her career. But she still was very successful financially. And why shouldn’t she have (capitalized on that)?”
That said, Patrick is clearly ready to take the next step in her career, to be known as much, if not more, for her racing as for her gender. A second-place finish last week in Detroit is her best and in 16 starts this year since moving from the Rahal Letterman Racing team to Andretti Green, Patrick has four top-five finishes and 11 top-10s.
“I think she’s making huge progress,” says Michael Andretti, co-owner of Andretti Green.
“She’s putting in a (heck) of an effort. Our team has a lot of tools for her to use and she has done a great job of using them and using her teammates to help. If I tell her to do something, she pays attention and (does it), which is how she’s going to win races and she’s close to it. It can happen this weekend. She’s capable.”
She admits to being impatient.
“I put more pressure on myself than anyone else,” Patrick says. “We’ve had a great season, my times have improved, my driving on all courses has improved. Last week I felt was my race to win and maybe I had a bad stroke of luck. It’s just a matter of time.”
Part of that adjustment comes from moving from Rahal Letterman, where priorities were questioned last year.
“(Suddenly,) we weren’t the fastest cars anymore and there were internal issues preventing us from becoming faster and better as a team,” Patrick says.
“Now this year, it’s a new team and a good one. But it’s new, so there’s a certain transition period with everybody getting used to you. (It) takes a while to get down and trust each other.”
As for the consistently high Q rating and sex appeal, she doesn’t deny it. But she also doesn’t need it on the track. In June, enraged at driver Dan Wheldon for not backing off when she pulled alongside him while attempting to pass on Lap 87 of a race in West Allis, Wis., Patrick reacted like any other driver.
Confronting Wheldon after the race, she grabbed his arm and told him, “If you don’t think I’m going to remember this, you’re crazy.”
“She’s messing with the wrong person if she wants to get feisty. I’m a lot tougher than she is on the track.” Says teammate Dario Franchitti: “We all look at her as a driver like any other.”
Well, at least some of them do. Asked last year about Patrick’s potential to compete in NASCAR, fellow driver Ed Carpenter responded: “I think Danica’s pretty aggressive in our cars. I mean, you know, especially if you catch her at the right time of the months, she might be trading plenty of paint out there.”
At the time, Patrick laughed it off. She still does, metaphorically speaking, as there is no hint of laughter in her voice.
“That stuff never really affected me,” she says, “because there’s nothing I can do about it. I figure if they’re talking about me, I’m doing something right. Certain people, you’re just never going to persuade to think differently, so I really couldn’t care less . As long as you have people around you who are positive and believe in you, that’s all that really matters. People who say negative things, I just look at as free publicity for me.”
She figured that out early while racing in junior series in England as a teenager. Mechanics and engineers told her she should be at home serving tea. Fellow drivers said worse.
“It hardened me up, made me a different kind of person,” she says. “It was difficult, lonely. Every time I think about it, I think of how bad it was. But I overcame it and what’s that they say about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?”
Patrick’s father, T.J., remembers that time as well.
“People would ask me how we could send our daughter over to England alone at age 16,” he says. “But it was one of those things–how could we not? It was what needed to be done. There were no options in the states and that’s where you have to go if you want to be a good race car driver. “
She recalls being lonely.
“But never for a second did I ever want to quit,” she says. “I just wanted to get to the top so badly that everything I went through I just thought of as part of the process.”
A former driver himself, T.J. Patrick did not have the success and hence the name to make it easier on his daughter.
“She had to pave her own way,” he says. “There were times when I was home trying to write checks to teams to just test her and no one would even test her, even some teams owned by women. One year we didn’t race at all because we had no money. I remember the names and the people.”
Yet the pressure to perform existed right at the start. Even Bobby Rahal, the former Indy 500 winner who rescued her from England, signed her to a contract and brought her to the United States to train, told the Tribune’s Ed Hinton in March 2005: “She has it all, and she can take racing as a whole to places it never has been. But ultimately, she’ll be just the next Anna Kournikova if she doesn’t succeed . . . and she isn’t interested in being anything less than successful.”
That last part remains true even if the Anna Kournikova part is a stretch.
Her start at Indy, where she finished fourth in ’05 and earned Rookie of the Year honors, did nothing to ease the pressure.
“I got really popular in one month and with that people seem to think you’re supposed to do things,” she says. “I can’t help that the media has made me a story, written about me and put me on TV. I’m very grateful for that, but the expectation level is that everything you do should be great when there are always ups and downs.”
Kyle Moyer, general manager of Andretti Green Racing, compares Patrick to Phil Mickelson, perhaps another stretch as Mickelson won tournaments but did not win a major until 2004, his 12th year on tour.
“She has the complete package,” he says. “And once she wins, I think the dam will break and more will come easily. The first one is always the hardest.”
“To me,” T.J. Patrick says, “she already has won, competing at the highest level of race car driving and being very successful at it, top five week in and week out. ...At some point you have to look at that as a win, and at some point you have to actually win. You just never know when it’s going to happen.”