Saturday, August 27, 2011

Danica Patrick: 'I got in a stock car for the first time and thought, "This is awesome"'

Danica Patrick speaks Friday at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.,
prior to Sunday's Indy Grand Prix at Sonoma. Credit: Lindi Bess for Skirts and Scuffs

By Lindi Bess, Rebecca Kivak and Katy Lindamood

Just one day after announcing her plans to make the full-time move to NASCAR next season, Danica Patrick answered questions from media and fans Friday at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., the site of Sunday's Indy Grand Prix at Sonoma in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

The five races left in the IndyCar season will mark the last to feature Patrick as a series regular. Since 2010, Patrick has been splitting her time between the No. 7 GoDaddy.com car for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar and the No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series. But come 2012, Patrick will leave her IndyCar racecar behind to compete full-time in Nationwide and run a partial Sprint Cup schedule of eight to 10 races for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Patrick has been competing in IndyCar since 2005 and has one win, the 2008 Motegi race in Japan, making her the first woman to win a race in series history. With one top-5 and seven top-10 finishes this season, Patrick currently sits 12th in the IndyCar points standings. After starting 23rd in last year's Indy Grand Prix at Sonoma, she finished 16th.

As Patrick prepares to embark upon the next stage of her racing career, she spoke about her decision to leave IndyCar for NASCAR, what she'll miss about IndyCar, what she and three-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti thought the first time they drove stock cars, and how she enjoys the rough and tumble nature of NASCAR.

Skirts and Scuffs columnist Lindi Bess participated in Friday's press conference at Infineon. The following is a full transcript of Patrick's comments.

Danica, this is an area you spend a lot of time in. If you can talk about what you look forward to both on and off the track here at Infineon Raceway.

This is a bit of a bigger press conference than I'm used to. On the track, you know, I feel like this is a real rhythm track and you get in a good rhythm here and get comfortable with the car. You can put it where you want it and get aggressive. It can be a good day for you. It can be a good weekend. And off the track I look forward to the wine ... or champagne or whatever else they're serving ... and the weather, let's not forget that.

So Danica, now the the secret is out and you're making a transition to NASCAR, how does it feel to finally be making it?

Well, I haven't quite made it yet. I think I'm mostly just relieved that it's out there and I can talk about it and the truth is out there. I'm just excited. I'm really excited about racing the cars or else I wouldn't be doing this, so that's why I'm doing it. I'm just excited.

Your dream has been to win the Indianapolis 500 and you've been close so many times. Is this a dream you intend to pursue as you move forward to NASCAR?

I think I've said that I love Indy and I'd like to keep doing it, but you know, we're not clear on what's possible for that in the future, but it's something that we're definitely keeping in mind and trying for.

Kind of a follow-up to what you just said about the truth's out there. In a lot of ways, do you feel like the truth has set you free?

In what way free?

In that you made the momentous decision?

I feel like I'm finally gonna give you guys something else to talk about, or I'm finally going to get to talk about something else, so I guess there is some feeling of that. I don't feel trapped behind the secrets and behind the deals, behind the curtains that nobody can know about yet, so I feel lighter ... which is great for a girl.

You said yesterday in the announcement that you don't know what the next question will be. I'm going to go ahead and let you know what it's going to be. It's going to be everyone asking when you are going to win a NASCAR race.

I hope that happens. I hope that happens frequently, but as an indication would go, I think there's definitely some areas I need to improve on. But you know, I thought I had a really good shot of winning at the end of the Daytona race in June, so it could have already happened, I guess, if the stars aligned a little different, but it didn't and it was an exciting finish, though, for those who saw it. It was quite the crashfest across the finish line, so hopefully it was exciting for the fans.

And it was totally ironic and completely coincidental that I was running with Tony (Stewart). I thought that at that point nobody really knew about that and thought, Wow! I'm like auditioning for a job right now, I'd better do a good job.

Credit: Lindi Bess for Skirts and Scuffs
Danica, can you talk about what went into the decision-making process to leave IndyCar and go to NASCAR for you?

I just had to really think about what was going to make me the happiest and where I wanted to race and where I thought I would have the most fun, and I've really enjoyed racing those cars. I was just talking to one of my crew guys and I said, “You know the races that I do well in in IndyCar are like all the races in NASCAR.” You have to take care of your car at times, that the car changes a lot over a run, the track changes, the line moves, you've gotta adapt to the way that the tires go off and things like that and so you know that's like our short oval races like Loudon or Milwaukee, the flatter tracks, and like Indy those are the races that I tend to do better at, so you know I'm just excited about it. The first thing was, what do I want to do, and second, what was Go Daddy prepared to do, and you know Bob has said many times that I'm his girl and he'll go anywhere with me, which is a great thing to hear as a driver. But when it comes that time, you know we had to figure out what was possible, and they're still committed to me, so that's great.

What's the biggest thing you'll miss about it?

There will be a few things I'll miss. I'll miss some of the people. My crew guys are great, they've done a great job for me. I've let them know it had nothing to do with them, this decision. I'll miss some of the events and I'll miss the feeling of an IndyCar because they do really amazing things, as I've said many times. They just handle very well, they're just amazing pieces of machinery, so yeah, there are a few things that I'll miss for sure.

Can you talk physically about the difference between driving a stock car and an IndyCar as you have experienced them?

It's hotter in the stock car, much hotter. As I found out at Montreal, when your oil and water are like between 240 and 280 the whole time apparently that makes it even hotter. That really is one of them. The length of the races, I feel like they are pretty long. I feel like Nationwide race are as long if not longer than a lot of IndyCar races and Sprint Cup races will be even longer. You know the length of the races are different, car changes very much over a run and over the race and the amount of things you can do on a pit stop to make it better is pretty cool. You know in IndyCar you have cockpit adjustments like shocks, and front and rear roll bars, and brake bias on road courses, but it feels like in a stock car you can take bigger swings at it, so you might start the race off struggling, but by the second or third stop you can be great so, that's pretty fun. And like I said, it's just hotter. They have power steering though, that's kind of nice. I really don't want that day when it goes out though because that will be a lot of work, but physically driving IndyCars is definitely a challenge, the strength that driving an IndyCar you do need is quite a bit.

Was there anything holding you back thinking maybe I should stay in IndyCar, because the rumors have been out for so long about making this decision?

Sure, you know, I guess if I wanted to stay, that was possible and there was an opportunity to do that. The Indy 500 is something I'd really love to do. I like various races throughout the schedule but there wasn't enough, so there wasn't enough. The excitement about the new car was a thought for sure and what that would bring to the series. There were some considerations but I think these things become obvious to you. In the past negotiations when I haven't done it 'cause I wasn't ready or didn't want to, all the way back to 2006, I wasn't ready at that point, so you know I'm ready. I knew what I wanted to do.

Other than Indy and Motegi, which tracks on the IZOD IndyCar circuit will you miss?

I'll miss Milwaukee. I really like that track. I think the races that are very exciting for IndyCar are something quite different for NASCAR, to be honest with you. I think that the flatter tracks are really good for IndyCar racing and I think that the more banking that you get on NASCAR tracks the better the racing is. I'll miss Milwaukee. I'll miss Indy but I might not have to really, I'll just miss it in an IndyCar. Even some of the venues that yo go to, you go to the big cities. I can't say that road courses are my favorite, but you know there's something special about going to events like Long Beach and Toronto, places like that, but I probably won't have to miss coming here cause hopefully I'll be back again.

You have a lot of supporters for this move, but you also have a lot of naysayers. A lot of them are saying this is basically a money grab, that this is a commercial appeal for Nationwide and Sprint. What is success for you? How do you look at what in the big picture will bring for yourself and what you will bring to the series?

I'm kinda stuck on your first part of that. If I wanted to go for money, I would have gone a long time ago. I would've. I would've gone in 2006 when I could have made a lot more money going to NASCAR. If anything, NASCAR's gone down quite a bit over the years, so I can't say I caught it at the right time, but it's what I want to do. So, this decision wasn't about money at all ... the same thing that defines success here and that's getting to victory lane and running up front and being competitive every weekend. It's as simple as that.

You've been able to really connect with fans while you've been driving in IndyCar. Especially as you move up to Sprint do you feel like you will need to rebuild the fan base or do you feel there's fan support just waiting for you there?

First off, I've got great fans in IndyCar, they've been very supportive for a long time through all the good all the bad all the boring 20-place runs and the great win, so I'm very appreciative for that. But, I've had great fan response over on the NASCAR side for sure. There's been a lot of support, feels very similar and hopefully by making this decision I haven't turned all my IndyCar fans off of cheering for me. Everybody's entitled to their own opinion and what they prefer to watch or what they feel is right or not right for me to do. I just want everyone to understand the reason I'm leaving is I enjoy racing those cars and at the end of the day it's my life and I have to do what I'm happiest doing and what I have the most fun doing. And for me that translates to results so this wasn't about something else like money or anything like that. It was just about where I enjoy racing and I'm lucky enough in my career that when I perform well and when I have good days that you great journalists report on it and I've become a pretty popular person. So, I appreciate that and that's why I don't really have to think about the media platform. I just have to think about where I'll be happy and where I will perform.

Do you feel better suited in a stock car?

I don't know if I can know that yet. I definitely have fun driving it. I guess I'll be really honest and use something I was just talking about with some of my family and friends, Dario talked about driving a stock car for the first time and he got in and thought, "What am I doing?" I got in a stock car for the first time and thought, "This is awesome." That's just a difference in feeling, perhaps that means I'll be more suited, I'm not sure. I definitely don't have the results over there that I have in IndyCar thus far in my career. We'll have to see, but I definitely like driving it. I almost feel like I'm racing go-karts again back with my friends and I use the same lingo. I guess it made me realize how European IndyCar is using different words and the talk and there's even so much more of an English than European engineering staff. It felt like home, I can't lie. It felt like home.

Early in your career in IndyCar, you kind of had on your shoulders that you were the person who was going to make it more mainstream, bring it kind of back a little bit. Now those same expectations are being placed on you with NASCAR, which is a lot more of a burden. How do you handle that burden a little bit, as the expectation levels have increased dramatically now?

There’s really nothing I can do about that, to be honest. You know, I feel like it’s ... like people watch because I also have great partners, like Go Daddy running commercials, and Peak and some of the other sponsors that I have that make me more of a mainstream America kind of a person that people want to watch, so part of it’s partners. The other part of it is running upfront and doing well. That’s what people watch. I remember my first Indy 500, they said that the big couple-point spike came at the end when I was leading, on the ratings. So, I gotta do well. I think that will help and beyond that, yeah, I hope the ratings go up and I hope more people come and everything like that, but that’s really nothing that I can – the best way I can have any sort of input to that is just to do the best I can to perform.

Danica, you alluded that you’d been carrying this with you for a while, and you were kind of relieved that the secret was out. How long have you been carrying it with you – a month, a year, all season?

Yeah … (room erupts into laughter) … Obviously I’ve been doing this – this is the second year of the split schedule. I didn’t know if I’d like it, and I thought I would like it, but I didn’t know for sure. And I came off of my best year of IndyCar in 2009 when I negotiated this – when this deal was negotiated, so – let’s face it, I didn’t negotiate it – so I didn’t know, I had never driven a stockcar before, the deal was signed and done before I’d ever driven one, so you know, I could have gotten in it and not liked it all. But I got in and I liked it right away. I was pretty fast right away, especially in testing, then to go to Daytona and run that ARCA race, and get my first taste of bumping and pushing and colliding into cars was just like, so liberating, and it was the most fun I’d ever had in a racecar. I smile like it was that day right now because it was so much fun - I just had a really great time. I had that experience February of 2010. Now did I know I was going to want to do NASCAR? No, but that was the first indication because I had a really great time and it didn’t go so bad.

In 2005, you joined a series that had 17-18-car starting fields. Now you’re leaving a series that has 28-car starting fields. Just how much better of a series is the series that you’re leaving than the one that you joined?

Yeah, obviously the car count is up, the competition level is definitely up. There’s a lot of really, really amazing drivers here that make it really hard to have a good weekend every weekend. I think that it’s much stronger. I think that Randy (Bernard, IndyCar CEO) has brought some fresh ideas and approaches to the IndyCar Series. As I’ve said over the last few years, and since I really got into the series, that things are on the up and up, and that’s still true. It doesn’t change how I feel and what I want to do and where I’m going to have fun, but I think that IndyCar is still going up.

It sounds like you are just getting bored, maybe, and this is a new excitement. Is that part of it?

(Laughs a little) Umm … I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s real easy to get bored doing this kind of a job. I guess I just … you know, it wasn’t boredom, no. There’s been some frustrations throughout the year kind of knowing more what I wanted to do, but no, I just wanted to do something else. I just wanted to be racing somewhere else. So, that’s it, you know, that’s it. I just enjoy racing those cars more, that’s what it comes down to. It wasn’t boredom. Trust me, you’ll see this afternoon, I’ll have my hands full. Pretty tough to get bored.

You talked about the pushing and shoving a little bit in NASCAR. That’s something, based on what you just said, you really enjoy that aspect of it?

Yeah I do, I really do. I don’t know, maybe that makes me a wimp in IndyCars maybe, you guys can draw your own conclusions, but it’s pretty tough to push people around in an IndyCar. And a lot of times when there’s people who do crash into others, it’s not necessarily on purpose, it’s an accident of some sort. But that’s frustrating – you want to get back at them, but what are you going to do? Hit him, take yourself out of the race; hit him, flip the car. These cars are pretty dangerous to touch wheels in.

But in a stockcar, if somebody messes with you, you just hit them back, and you don’t really ruin your day. You help your day out by getting him out of the way. You have to be careful not to crush the front of the car so you don’t overheat the engine, which I learned – which I’ve learned.

Yeah, you can get back at them. There’s definitely a level of bravery with the cars just due to the fact that you don’t have those potential moments where something like what happened to Dario at Michigan or like Ryan Briscoe at Chicago, I think it was, where – those were pretty phenomenal crashes - and you don’t feel like that’s going to happen quite as easy in those cars. So there’s definitely that level of bravery getting into the corner and if someone turns down on you – well, go right ahead, you’re just going to hit me, and you’re probably going to spin.

I’m not saying I’m some aggressive, aggressive person out there. I was actually talking to Jacques Villeneuve last night, and I said hey, I’m not going to go after people, but if they do something to me, then I will. I will always treat everyone fair to start with, I will always give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to race me clean, but if they don’t, you’re much safer to fix that issue.

Danica, another question from the Internet. Do you feel that since you started driving in NASCAR, that you’ve been treated differently in the Indy garage, or by your team?

No, no I don’t. My team has always stood behind me. The fans have been still great, for sure. I think that today, arriving at the track, there’s a probably some kind of, there’s a little bit of confusion on what to say to me, if they should say anything to me, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. The best I can do is tell, especially my crew and the people around me, is that they’ve done a great job for me, and that they were not the reason for my decision. Everybody’s always been very supportive, no matter what kind of rumors were going around, because let’s face it, they’ve kind of been going around since 2006. No, everybody’s been great, especially my crew and the people that have worked hard for me over the last five years at this team. I hope they get jobs and they are very successful and they keep going and work with a driver who wins a lot.


The Indy Grand Prix at Sonoma will be broadcast live Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on VS.

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