KRAVITZ: When Danica Patrick is gone from racing, I’ll miss her badly, and yes, you will, too

Danica Patrick waits during qualifications for the IndyCar Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Bob Kravitz

SPEEDWAY, Ind. (WTHR) - I’m going to miss Danica Patrick after she takes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track – any track, for that matter -- for the last time Sunday.

I’ll miss her for a very selfish reason, one that has absolutely nothing to do with her driving ability, which is ample, or her long-time willingness to use her spotlight to inspire young women in her field or whichever field they choose.

I’ll miss interviewing her.

Crazy, it sounds.

But to a lot of sportsmen and women, the give-and-take with the media is a required Kabuki dance, a miserable exercise in rote questions and rote answers. We ask because it’s our job, and they answer because it’s their job, and everybody sits there thinking, ``There’s definitely something else I’d rather be doing at this moment.’’

Not Danica.

She is smart. She is thoughtful. She has been asked just about every conceivable question during her long and storied career, and every time, she has attempted to answer those old questions with new, thoughtful, original answers. She understands the interest in her, and she fully attempts to justify that interest by opening a door into her soul every time she sits in a news conference and volleys questions and answers.

So I asked her Thursday, “When you look at the totality of your motorsports career, what are you proudest of either on or off the track?’’

She laughed. “You make it sound so big.’’

Me: “Well, it has been.’’

Patrick: “Um, of my career?’’ And here she took a long pause. She thought and thought, started and stopped, looked not only for the right answer, but the true answer. And then she continued.

“Just making an impact or having the ability to make an impact on people’s lives, that’s really powerful,’’ she said. “And it took some years of self reflection, because doing these things (media interviews) are like therapy for me because you’re asking me these interesting questions and they might not be things I’ve ever thought of before. Like the simple ones at the beginning (of my career), `How do you feel about being a role model?’ I don’t know, I haven’t put any thought into that yet. And then you kind of think about it and wonder what DO I think about that and what DO I say to someone? The ability to effect and inspire people is really powerful and I’ve never overlooked it and I’ve never been an athlete who said I didn’t ask for it and I don’t want it. I honor it and try to do a good job with it.’’

Then, out of nowhere, she spoke about us – the media. Understand, a lot of athletes view us as sub-humanoids, men and women who’ve never played the game at their level. They are the men and women in the arena. We are the much-reviled critics, according to the old Teddy Roosevelt saw.

“There’s a power to saying things out loud and the thought that goes into it, and those things become real,’’ she said. “You guys have made me dig deep. I have a love relationship with the media. I’m not scared of you guys. I’m really not. Look, if you write a bad article and there are things in it that aren’t true, I’m happy to call you out. But I’m not scared to talk to you and I’m not scared to call somebody out, but it doesn’t happen often. The media has been amazing for me. It’s part of the package, part of who I am today. I’m not dreading this media availability. Now, they’re tiring because I’m really thinking about your questions but I don’t mind it. It’s therapy.’’

She laughed. “Maybe I’ll miss you guys, too. I really will.’’

Her next few months will be dedicated to her work as the upcoming ESPY’s host, but after that, she will become a regular person. Well, as regular as a former race-car driver who’s dating a famous quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) can be. She will be busy, but there’s little that she absolutely HAS to do. And she believes she’s going to be fine with that. It’s been said an athlete dies twice, first when he or she has to retire and then when the athlete actually perishes. Patrick, who has been at the forefront of her sport for so many years, doesn’t view retirement as any sort of devastating personal loss.

“That feeling of success when you really put yourself out there and work really hard for something and there’s a lot on the line, and you’re able to execute, you know, that’s amazing,’’ she said. “Like last week in quals, the natural competitor in me was like, `Man, if we had more time…if we could have trimmed more,’ but it was a great weekend. So those are tough things to come by in the natural world of doing ordinary activities. These are extraordinary things. We’re going 235 miles per hour, so I know that will be difficult but I’m ok with that. I’ve never needed the spotlight. I don’t care if someone doesn’t know who I am. It’s like if somebody asks me, `Aren’t you famous?’ `Well, I’m only famous if you think I’m famous.’ There’s going to be less pressure. I’m ready for less pressure. I think I’m ready.’’

Patrick’s critics, and there are several, will point to the fact that she didn’t win a lot. She won one IndyCar race, the Japan 300, and failed to win on the NASCAR circuit, where she admitted she got tired of being “irrelevant.’’ They look at the minimal success, look at her incredible popularity and see a disconnect. Why should Patrick get all the love while more successful drivers were being overlooked?

This is what they don’t see or refuse to see: She’s a woman in a man’s world. She has made an otherworldly impact on not only her sport, proving herself as the biggest needle-mover in the game, but she has empowered scores of young females both in motorsports and in other are areas. The argument can be made that she belongs in the motorsports Hall of Fame, if only for the impact she has made on the sport and on people.

And let’s be honest: She hasn’t been an also-ran, a back marker. She was the first woman to lead an Indianapolis 500. She was Indy’s Rookie of the Year. When she has been on good teams with top cars, she has been very competitive. She will be a player Sunday at the Speedway, and no, she is not coming back. This is her last race. She will not be like the quarterback who preceded her boyfriend in Green Bay, Brett Favre. She is done after this.

“The things that motivate me now, and I got a glimpse of it with the book (“Pretty Intense’’), is that being able to help people and empower them is really cool,’’ she said. “I don’t need to do something to get attention, to be on TV and have people care on some level. I want to do something to help people and I’m fortunate that I have a big platform. There might be more books, speaking tours, different things. The platform helps. Like with this cooking show I want to do. I don’t want it to be `Use a teaspoon of this, a tablespoon of that.’ Anything I do moving forward I want to have some depth and have it impact on people’s hearts, helping them make better choices.’’

There will always be the question of whether the move to NASCAR was a smart one, although she says now she has no regrets. Would she have won more races if she had stayed with IndyCar? Probably. She was a contender here; she was not when she was in NASCAR. But this is a woman who has always challenged herself, has always done what people said couldn’t be done, especially by a woman in a man’s sport.

“I’ll tell you one thing, guys, not enough people give enough credit to her (Patrick),’’ Helio Castroneves was saying. “She not only stayed away for so many years, to not only be in the race but in the Fast Nine, it shows she’s an amazing talent. She opened so many doors for so many young ladies. Especially in this age of women power, motor racing couldn’t be more equal. She’s courageous for making the decision to stop. I’m not sure I have that courage. Good for her. I’ll try to make her last 500 as difficult as I can but it’s an honor to share the track with her.’’

Now she has this one, final Indianapolis 500, and it will be interesting to see whether she will be willing to put it all on the line, push the envelope, when she knows this is her final race. Either way, it will be great to see her again, and when she is gone, and she’s on TV telling you how to make a fabulous souffle, you’ll miss her, too.

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