Now in her third full season in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, Danica Patrick is in a period of transition. About to part ways with the primary sponsor of her car, and nearing the end of a bumpy season with her team, Stewart-Haas Racing, she is still driven to equal or surpass the kind of achievements that made her the most successful female driver in the history of American open-wheel racing: the first to win an IndyCar race (2008 Indy Japan 300) and the owner of the best Indy 500 finish (third, 2009) by a woman.
Patrick recently met with SI.com at the Wall Street boutique of one of her longtime sponsors, the Swiss Watchmaker Tissot, where she talked racing, what will come next for her and her thoughts on this being “the year of the woman” in sports.
Kayla Lombardo: With three races left in the Sprint Cup Series, how do you assess your team’s performance this year?
Danica Patrick: I think we’ve had an average season. We had a new driver and crew chief combination (Patrick teamed with Daniel Knost) this year, so that created some challenges. But we’ve grown a lot and we’ve had some good races and some bad ones. Honestly, it’s just extremely challenging to be great every weekend in NASCAR. It’s a very, very, very competitive sport, in many aspects. Especially in the team aspect. But, I think growth is the most important thing to see, and we’ve had some of that this year, for sure.
KL: Since the Chase was out of reach for you this year, what are some of the things that you and your team will look to do differently next season?
DP: There are so many little areas to think about and it’s about maximizing all of them. We need to unload quicker every weekend when we ride. We need to make sure we look at everything from offset between practice and qualifying and the race and how the track ends up changing. Everything from restarts to pit-in, pit-out, and timing lines and how I’m using those. If you’re going to have a great day, you have to be good at all of them. But no matter what’s happening, if you’re not fast enough, then the rest doesn’t really matter as much. So, speed is the most important thing for us to improve upon so we can put ourselves in a better position to win.
KL: How will you turn the page this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway after the points penalty and $50,000 fine you were given after the Martinsville incident last Sunday?
DP: Not think about the weekend before. You can’t let one weekend spill over into the next. You just have to get over it and move on and see it as an opportunity to turn things around.
KL: Do you ever lack confidence as a driver?
DP: Sure. I think at times we have more (confidence) than we should, and at times we have less than we should. But I think that’s just human nature. Every now and again you feel like you’re in a rut and you think “Is it me?” And then other times, you might be in the rut and you’re thinking to yourself, “Why hasn’t anyone given me a better car? I can do this.” So there’s times when you have a lot of confidence and there’s times when you need some, but that’s just sports.
KL: How do you get your confidence back after a tough race?
DP: If I feel down, I think about the good races I’ve had. I think about the fact that I’m not a worse driver than I was before. Presumably I only get better and have more experience and learn more. I think about where I came from and what I’ve done, and I just believe in myself.
KL: Looking ahead to 2016, you’ve just secured sponsorships to replace GoDaddy that will carry you through the season. How does the mission of your sponsors, like Tissot, fall in line with what’s important to you as a driver?
DP: I think that starts on the front end with articulating what my brand really stands for, and the things that I enjoy doing. Tissot has always been a really fun style partner for me (on this day, Patrick was in New York to help launch the new PRS 516 Watch Collection) that has allowed me to do cool photo shoots where I get to be feminine and more model-like, instead of holding a product or being in a fire suit, or with cars around me. It’s more stylized glamor, which I like.
KL: You’re 33 now, and you’ve been racing since your go-cart days as a little girl. How much longer do you see yourself doing this racing thing?
DP: As long as I’m enjoying it and have the ability to do well on track, which is part of what enjoying it is. If it’s not going well on track, it’s not fun. I’ve been fortunate enough to be successful on and off the track, and I’m in a position where it’s not as though I have to do what I do to get by in life. I do it because I love it. It’s a tremendous amount of work, don’t get me wrong, but I do it because I love it. At a point in time when I would rather be doing something else, then that’s just what I’ll do.
KL: As a racer, what do you want to accomplish before you go out?
DP: I’d love to win in NASCAR and I’d love for people to look back and remember me as a great driver. If they remember me as a girl second, that’s the way I prefer it. I want people to say she was a great driver and she kicked butt.
KL: In June, you made your first appearance in the broadcast booth during the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Is broadcasting something you see yourself doing after your racing career ends?
DP: That’s a good question. It will be interesting to see how Jeff (Gordon) feels about it after he has his run in the booth starting next year with FOX. But, yes, it could be an option for me. It just depends on where life goes. My boyfriend (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) races as well, and if some day he’s not my boyfriend and I’m always coming to the track, but I’m not racing, it could be something I do, but maybe not. I love racing, for sure, but I mostly just love the challenge. I love setting a goal and achieving it. I honestly just love passing when I’m out there, that’s probably my favorite thing to do. I’m not by any means super technical, so I love racing and I love being a race car driver, but I don’t know if it’s really what I’m an expert in.
KL: As the first woman to serve as a full-race analyst in the booth, I’m curious to know what you thought about what Jessica Mendoza did this season on ESPN’s baseball broadcasts.
DP: I’m one of those people who thinks that everyone should follow their hearts and whatever it is they love to do, so if they are a girl or a boy or black or white, it’s all about doing something that you love to do and what you’re good at, and clearly, as a woman who played softball and found herself in a position to be an expert in that field and talk about it and be a personality, she was able to do that. It’s cool that she was able to make the transition. I’ve never felt like certain doors like that are closed to women. It’s just a matter of wanting it enough. And she wanted it, clearly.
KL: Some call this “the year of the woman” in sports. What do you think about all the success women in American sports have experienced in 2015?
DP: There’ve been a lot of women this year who have done extremely well. When you’ve got a World Cup, and all those things, it definitely puts a highlight on female athletes. Ronda Rousey has also been incredible and dominant. Like the opportunity to be a broadcaster, it’s just as possible to be a great female athlete today.
KL: How do you think things are different now for women in professional sports than they were when you first broke into mainstream racing at the start of this century?
DP: There’s more open-mindedness about it now. There’s the belief that I, as a girl, could go out and drive just as good as a guy out there. There’s just more confidence that there really isn’t that much of a difference between girls and guys.
KL: Was there a woman in sports who served as a mentor to you when you first emerged in racing?
DP: Lyn St. James was helpful to me in my early career when I started going to IndyCar races and bigger events than just my go-cart races in my early teens. I was fortunate to have great support, and I just learned from all the people I was surrounded by, whether they were girls or guys.
KL: Is it ever hard for you to be a woman in a sport that is so dominated by men?
DP: No. I feel like I’ve gotten a ton of support, and I’m around as a female athlete in a day in age when there is a lot of open-mindedness to women in sports, and particularly women in racing. There was a point in time probably 30 years before I came in when women weren’t even allowed in the pits, so everything has progressed and evolved, and it’s a good time to be around.
KL: What advice do you have for women who are attempting to either compete in or coach men’s sports at a high level?
DP: Don’t think of yourself as being any different from the guys. That’s what I learned from my upbringing. My mom and dad were never the ones to say that being the fastest girl was good enough. It was always about being the fastest driver. If you think of yourself as being any different, you will be different. Our thoughts manifest into reality, so believe in yourself and have a goal.
KL: I know we still have over a month left in 2015, but who do you think should be SI’s Sportsperson of the Year?
DP: I feel like it’s going to be pretty hard to argue with Ronda Rousey. She’s been a pretty big deal this year being as dominant as she’s been. She’s incredible.