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Danica Patrick: A legacy that goes beyond the track

Yardbarker logo Yardbarker 5/25/2018 Lindsay Gibbs

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Video by USA Today

On Sunday, May 27, Danica Patrick's professional racing career will come to an end at the Indianapolis 500. Fittingly, she’ll say goodbye at the race where she burst onto the scene as the Rookie of the Year in 2005, and alongside the sponsor, GoDaddy, who helped her attain a level of visibility that most motorsport drivers can only dream about.

No matter what happens on Sunday, Patrick will retire as the most successful female racer in the history of both IndyCar and NASCAR. She has the highest finish by a female driver at both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, and is one of only 14 drivers to have led laps at both iconic races. She was the first woman to win a pole in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and had more starts, laps led, and top 10s in the series than any other woman in history. She’s the only woman to ever win a race in the IndyCar Series — her lone pro victory came at the 2008 Indy Japan 500.

Of course, Patrick’s legacy as a trailblazer for women is not a straightforward one. Her iconic partnership with GoDaddy was forged with racy commercials that catered to stereotypical male fantasies and sometimes even had to come with graphic content warnings. She never did have the on-track success in NASCAR that was expected from a driver with access to the tier of equipment and financial support that she had from Stewart-Haas Racing. And especially earlier in her career, she balked at the notion that she was “doing it for women.”

But there’s another side to every criticism. Her ads with GoDaddy got attention and set her apart from the rest; in a sport where sponsors are pretty much everything, this allowed her to have a sense of on-track security that most drivers lack. The transition from open-wheel racing to stock car racing is difficult for every driver, and Patrick’s decision to switch from IndyCar to NASCAR showed an immense amount of courage. And, whether it was her intention or not, her mere presence out there on the track inspired girls and women around the world.

It was empowering to watch her race against the men every Sunday. It was exhilarating to watch a woman lead a lap with 41 men trailing her, to see her make a pass through a narrow space, jump out of her car after a horrifying crash, and confront other drivers after races about on-track dust-ups. In a sport that still has scantily-clad Monster Energy Girls handing out trophies to champions after each race, it was refreshing to see a woman in a fire suit and helmet, solely focused on competing.

And it was always inspiring to look at the young girls who flocked to the tracks in copycat fire suits, just hoping to get a glimpse of their idol.

Patrick’s on-track impact had stagnated throughout the past few years in NASCAR, and given her many business endeavors and the struggle she was having securing a full-time sponsor, it makes sense that she’s walking away from racing at this point in her life.

It’s disappointing that as she walks away, there are no obvious heirs to her throne. There are still no other full-time female drivers in the top tiers of IndyCar or NASCAR; it is still a sport that is dominated by men at every single level. But, it won’t be that way forever.

The next female driver to rise up the ranks in motorsports probably won’t want to be called the next Danica Patrick, but she’ll undoubtedly benefit from Patrick’s accomplishments and missteps.

For over a decade, every move Patrick has made on and off the track has faced an unfathomable level of scrutiny from both fans and critics, but she’s persevered through it all. And along the way, she’s normalized the image of a woman in a fire suit, and challenged preconceived notions of what women are capable of being.

Related slideshow: Danica Patrick through the years (provided by photo services)

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