Danica Patrick begins her IndyCar farewell tour at Infineon Raceway
SONOMA, Calif. -- Just one day removed from making the biggest announcement of her career, Danica Patrick was back at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., last Friday to prepare for the IZOD IndyCar Series race over the weekend. The Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma would officially begin Danica's IndyCar farewell tour as the driver closes this phase of her racing career before joining NASCAR next season as a full-time driver in the Nationwide Series and a part-time driver on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Patrick allowed SI.com to spend a "Weekend with Danica" to give a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most unique weekends of her career -- one where she begins her long goodbye to the series that helped create "Danica-mania."
At the top, a group of Japanese media is waiting for Patrick to do some promotional work on IndyCar's final race at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan next month. That track will always be important to Patrick because it's where she became the first female driver ever to win a major race on a closed course racing circuit in 2008. So far, that stands as her greatest accomplishment and only victory.
Patrick and her assistant, Haley Moore, arrive and begin the interviews. Her trip to Japan will be much different this year because the earthquake that rocked that country last spring damaged parts of the racing oval, forcing this year's IndyCar race to be held on the Motegi road course.
"I guess I didn't know that last year would be the last year I would race on the oval, so I'm disappointed by that," Patrick, who has struggled on street and road course races throughout her IndyCar career, told her Japanese interviewer. "The oval is very unique and a very good racetrack and that makes for a good event. Our races can be very follow-the-leader on road courses. Maybe this one will be more interesting but I've always enjoyed going to Motegi because the culture and the food is something I will miss."
Patrick enjoys early-morning jogs with her husband, Paul Hospenthal, at the racecourses on the schedule and the jog around Motegi was notable because of the cherry blossoms that bloom in that part of Japan. When the IndyCar Series competed there in April, the blossoms were beginning to bloom, but when the race moved to September in 2009, the foliage changed.
It was in 2009 -- when Patrick was negotiating her current contract with Andretti Autosport -- that the thought of moving to NASCAR became a reality. That is when she negotiated her part-time Nationwide Series deal with JR Motorsports.
"When I negotiated this deal in 2009 I wanted to try it [NASCAR] and see if I liked it. I still loved IndyCar and had a great year in IndyCar. I wasn't quite ready to leave at that time but the ARCA race at Daytona in 2010 was the most fun I ever had in a race car. I liked it very quickly. I struggled in the Nationwide races early, but when I came back to those tracks for a second time I was all right."
"It's been a crazy week but I never lied when I said these things are complicated; they take time," Patrick said. "This isn't something you work on for a week or two and it comes together. We've been working on this for a very long time. There was a lot of different things that had to come together to make it happen.
"It is a little weird that everybody knows while the season is going on but there was so much talk about it. If we had done it the way we wanted, it would have been in October and that would have been terrible. So as quickly as legally possible we went ahead and announced what we did."
Patrick admitted she was curious how she would be treated in the IndyCar paddock over the weekend.
"People don't know what to say to me, but Marco Andretti came up to me and said `D.P., we're going to miss you' and gave me a big hug," she said. "Sometimes people don't know what to say and I don't know what to say, either. Goodbye? Thank you? It was just as awkward when we were trying to bring this thing together and I didn't know what to say about it."
In the weeks leading up to her announcement Patrick had to go into relative hiding at the track. She had to watch what she said because the deal wasn't finished. That was difficult for a driver who is very outgoing.
"I just felt really boring and that is so not me, but I couldn't be honest about everything because it wasn't appropriate or legal yet," Patrick admitted. "I felt really bad about it. I'm sure the media was fed up with it, too, and fans were sick of hearing about it. Everything was coming to a head."
Patrick's announcement was even delayed by a day while contracts were being signed. It was supposed to happen last Wednesday but did not take place until the following day.
While she's talking, a surprise visitor, 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and racing legend Mario Andretti, stops by to give Patrick a big hug.
"Aww, thank you, Mario," she said.
"We're really going to miss you," Mario said. "All the best to you."
"Thanks, Mario," she said. "You've been great. I'm good. I'm excited. It's been nice to get to know you. I'll still be around. I'll still be bothering you."
Even after the warm send-off, Patrick is confident in her decision to leave for NASCAR.
"Clearly, I'm leaving because I want to. I'm going to miss some of the races and some of the sensations that these cars give you that the stock car doesn't. And I will miss some of the people. But I'm not going to miss it all ... that is why I'm leaving."
"I'm not used to this big of a crowd for my Friday media availability," Patrick said.
But this was no normal media availability -- it was her first public appearance since her big announcement.
It was also a chance to answer the same questions from Thursday, which Patrick did in her typical style.
"These things become obvious," Patrick said of her decision. "I'm ready. I knew what I wanted to do. If I would have gone to NASCAR for the money, I would have gone a long time ago when we first started thinking of this in 2006. But I was not ready."
At 1:30 she does a quick television interview with Robin Miller of SpeedTV, who calls Patrick a "good ol' girl" because she is heading to NASCAR.
Patrick would go out and perform in IndyCar's Friday practice hopeful she could be a factor in Saturday's qualifications. Instead, she struggled, and ended up near the bottom of the 28-car field.
"It was a frustrating day for the GoDaddy team," she said. "We will go over all of our data tonight and look for an improved setup on Saturday. I didn't test here last week due to my NASCAR race in Montreal. But I have finished in the top 10 here several times. So I think we can get the proper setup for practice and qualifying."
Though Friday's practice was over, Patrick's day was not. She would attend a dinner at a winery for the Michael Andretti Foundation, an organization founded by her IndyCar team owner. Then it was off to a Napa Valley hotel to prepare for another long day in the life of Danica Patrick.
At 11:51 a.m. she climbs out of the car, takes off her gloves and helmet and complains about being held up in traffic by two slower drivers in her way.
"It's hard to put a complete lap together here with the traffic," Patrick tells her race strategist, George Klotz. She puts her black hair back into a ponytail, puts on her sunglasses and watch and walks back to the team's transporter in the paddock area of the track.
She begins by posing with three little girls, lighting up a big smile for the camera. Here teammate, Mike Conway, is seated next to her and even plays photographer when a fan wants to pose for a picture with Patrick.
Next, a female fan brings up NASCAR for the first time.
"Good luck in NASCAR," she said.
While some fans wished her well in NASCAR, the majority simply told her, "We're going to miss you." The fans at Infineon on this weekend are IndyCar fans -- a loyal but small group when compared to NASCAR fans.
Joan Deal of Chowchilla, Calif., surprises Patrick with a photo of her as a little girl karting at a meet in Solone, Nev.
After her a scrapping, bearded man wearing a cowboy hat steps up. His name is T.J. Woodward, 53, and he has a tattoo of Danica Patrick on his right arm that she autographed for him two years ago.
Woodward, who hails from Grass Valley, Calif., exemplifies Patrick's mass appeal. Everyone -- from little girls who look up to her as a hero to middle-aged men who look at her like a movie star -- loves Patrick.
At 1:07 p.m., the first NASCAR Nationwide Series die-cast No. 7 GoDaddy car makes an appearance in the autograph line for Patrick to sign.
While all this is going on, Conway sits at the same table virtually unnoticed by the autograph seekers. But many drivers in IndyCar have grown used to this (living in the shadows of Patrick's presence) by now.
A woman with tattoos in the line then yells at Patrick that she was the first to have a Patrick tattoo on her arm and predicted her future five years ago.
"I said you were going to Sprint Cup in five years, so I was the first," she said.
As the autograph session begins to wind down, Patrick trades notes with Marco Andretti, from "I'm going to miss you" to other notes they share between themselves.
And then young Henry Freeman steps up in line to steal the show. The precocious 4-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., wins Patrick over with his cuteness. He engages Patrick in conversation and proudly holds up the spotter's chart that has all the cars on it, proudly pointing to Patrick's No. 7 GoDaddy car. Freeman's father tells Patrick, "Every time Henry sees your car drive by he waves at you."
Freeman, who was among the last in the autograph line to meet Patrick, makes her day.
"The kids are the best," she said. "They make it all worth it. He knew my car and when his dad told me that he waves at me every time I drive by that was nice."
It's time to qualify.
For Patrick, however, her weekend is not a good one on the track. She is slow and slower, qualifying 25th out of 28 cars. She is outqualified by Ho-Pin Tung, a driver from China who made his first IndyCar start over the weekend.
At the end of her session she climbs out of her race car with a pissed off look on her face. She knows she is slow and doesn't like it. She dejectedly looks at the scoring monitor, puts on her sunglasses and watch and stalks back to the transporter in the paddock.
Despite her performance, however, she remains gracious enough to again sign autographs for her fans, many of who wait patiently just for a glimpse of racing's GoDaddy girl.
Away from the track, Patrick and her husband attend a sponsor/team dinner at Andretti Winery in Napa until 9 p.m. Then it was back to the hotel to rest up for race day.
"We're just killing time," she said.
During the delay she walks up to the next pit to talk to some members of another team who asked her about her Nationwide Series race at Montreal last weekend.
"I love Montreal," she said. "It's a good track to pass on. I loved it from my days racing in Atlantics and it is just as fun in a stock car."
The fog finally lifts and at 10:07 a.m. IndyCar officials announce the warmup is about to begin. Patrick zips up her firesuit and climbs into the race car for the final practice session before Sunday's race. When she pulls back into her pit area at 10:46 a.m. the reality once again is that she is 27th out of 28 cars.
Despite her frustration, Patrick has agreed to do a promotion for the track where a number of fans purchased tickets to attend a question-and-answer session with her. It had been delayed because of the weather delay in warmup. A golf cart on pit lane awaits Patrick, who is whisked away to the session.
Once there, Patrick jumps up on stage to the cheers of several thousand fans but she is admittedly a little feisty.
"I didn't get many laps," Patrick said. "That doesn't mean we won't have a good day. You guys caught me fresh out of the car one minute ago. You're probably not going to get the most positive thing. You guys know me well that when things don't go well I can get a little bit fiery."
One of the fans asked Patrick about moving to NASCAR and she shoots back, "I kinda think I'm getting put on the spot here because we're racing IndyCars today. But I really like those cars and I enjoy bumping."
Woodward, the "Danica Tattoo Guy," is back standing in the front row with a floral arrangement to give to the driver. She is so focused and rushed she doesn't notice.
The Q&A ends in seven minutes and it's back on the golf cart to the transporter. There, she is met by Brooklyn Bartelme, a pretty 8-year-old girl from Cameron Park, Calif. She is holding a photo of herself posing with Patrick that was shot last year.
"I really like her," the young girl says. "Yay, Daddy, we finally got her [autograph]."
I ask her father, John, if they will be watching Patrick when she races in NASCAR?
"Nah," he said. "We're not NASCAR fans."
"I'm not sure we are perfecting the art of road racing today," Patrick told the crowd.
At 12:19 she hops on her scooter and leaves hospitality. Thirty minutes later as she leaves the transporter she looks over and quips, "Are you bored following me around yet?"
At 1:01 p.m. Patrick is prepared to walk out to the grid but stops to sign autographs as several hundred fans are outside her transporter waiting for a chance to meet their hero.
She gets a high-five from a little girl. Then, an older fan says, "Danica, we're sure happy to see you in NASCAR."
Patrick walks out to the starting grid and says, "There is never enough time on a race weekend, Bruce, but that's a good thing."
She stands behind the Driver Introduction Stage and gets a hug from fellow driver Oriol Servia of Spain.
"I'm really going to miss you," Servia said.
She is greeted by cheers when she is introduced, then climbs into the back of a pickup truck where she and fellow driver Charlie Kimball take a lap around the racecourse as part of pre-race driver introductions. When she arrives at her car she engages in some pre-race banter with representatives from GoDaddy and then stands behind her husband during the invocation and National Anthem.
She climbs into the car, straps in and fires it up when the command is given to start engines. Seventy-five laps later, Patrick crossed the finish line in 21st place.
Will Power is the winner and while Team Penske is celebrating its first 1-2-3 finish in IndyCar since 1994, Patrick shakes her head as she talks to Klotz. She then heads back to the transporter.
"I don't care -- I'll be back here in a stock car," Patrick said. "I have good memories of this track. I've run well here before. But oh my God, the car was so loose. It was such a loose race car today."
Even in defeat, she stops to sign autographs for her adoring fans still posing for pictures.
"I appreciate this, guys," she tells her fans.
"After a day like today I'm just glad people are still cheering for me," she said a few moments later. "That's the great thing about fans; they really understand when you have a tough day and they don't even care. I feel lucky they keep cheering for me. It means a lot for me when they are still cheering for me and I'm running 21st."
There are four more races left in Patrick's IndyCar career. She will leave the series after the season finale at Las Vegas on Oct. 16. But as Patrick was about to go on with the rest of her night, she was asked what she was going to do?
"I get so dehydrated at these races I don't think I will be drinking any wine tonight, but I will have a beer," she said. "How NASCAR of me."