KRAVITZ BLOG: Danica Patrick goes back to the future, returns for the Indy 500 for one last time

IndyCar driver Danica Patrick climbs into her car to test drive at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Tuesday, May 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Bob Kravitz

After seven years without driving an IndyCar, Danica Patrick hoped that getting back in the car for her refresher Tuesday would be like riding a bike. A really sleek, really technically complex, really fast bike.

Um, not so much.

“The weight of the wheel was very heavy for me,” she said. “I don’t know what the heck I’ve been doing because I feel a lot stronger than the last time I was here. You’ve seen the video, I cross-fit like crazy. I can pick some weights up. But I didn’t feel very strong out there.”

As a rookie in 2005, Patrick knew the score by the time she got to Indy for her maiden voyage. She already had run four races in that year’s IndyCar iteration, and had run near the front in Motegi one race earlier. This time, it’s a new car, a car she hasn’t driven since her last IndyCar season in 2011 before she left for NASCAR, so it feels strikingly foreign. Patrick wasn’t even sure she’d get through her refresher, struggling to find comfort and speed, but she managed her way around the track and got the job done.

She’s been thinking of her Indy return for years now, but her anticipation level for Tuesday’s refresher was, in her words, “low.“

I just wanted to get today over with. Not in a negative sense, but it’s been seven years. I just wanted to get through the day, get more comfortable and get on with the job. There’s been a lot of anticipation for this day for me, not only the year after I left in thinking about it because I really did try to do it (run the 500) the second year I was gone and then a team manager said people would question my commitment to NASCAR, so I didn’t do it,” she said. “And I really didn’t believe I’d ever do it again. The further I got away from it, the more I thought, `I don’t want to do this.’ But there was no wavering on this decision. Once I thought about it, I thought, ` Yes. Yes! This is what I’m going to do.’ So it’s been since last fall thinking what the hell is this going to feel like?’ “

She smiled. “And now I know.”

Whether Patrick runs up front, in the middle or in the back Indy 500 Sunday, the fact is, she will be one of the biggest stories – if not THE biggest story – this May. Last year, we had Fernando Alonso from Formula One. This year, we have Danica’s Farewell. That doesn’t sit well with some people, and Lord knows I’ve heard from those people over the years, but frankly, I don’t understand it. Further, I’d say some of the criticisms are borne of simple sexism. People say she doesn’t win enough to justify all the attention she gets. Why doesn’t Marco Andretti get the same push-back? Or she’s too polarizing, too shrill for some tastes. Look, she’s a rare woman in a man’s world, and that alone is a big story. But people give her grief for being outspoken, which I appreciate as a journalist, but legends like Tony Stewart and A.J. Foyt have gotten a pass because they’re men and they’re simply competitors who do not suffer fools gladly.

Patrick’s return is a great story, and it will be great theater. However she runs, wherever she finishes.

“Last year was kind of an odd year with having a sponsor leave, which is a scenario I’ve never been in before,” she said. “And with not really feeling as much hope as I wanted (as a driver), that was frustrating. And feeling ready to move on but not in the way of Homestead. I thought, `There’s a better way to do this.’ I thought there’s a better way of honoring the run in my career as well as the fans and I can’t think of a better place to end than here, where it all began.

“I said to everyone on pit lane (Tuesday), if you look at the before and after of my 2005 pit-road gaggle of photographers and 2018, it felt similar. It’s a really cool feeling. I’ve come full circle. And then to have Go Daddy on top of it. Of all my sponsors, they’ve been by far the most known with me; it’s a good fit overall. It’s just a good story.”

It’s a very good story.

Whether you like it or not.

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