March 4, 2013 by JoBe Cerny
Danica Patrick of Roscoe, Illinois, roared into the record books at the Daytona International Speedway this weekend when she qualified on the pole for the 55th running of the Daytona 500. She was the first woman to accomplish that goal. She was also the first woman to lead the Great American Race. And her finishing position of 8th was the highest finish ever by a woman driver. (Danica was also the first woman to qualify in a pole position for an Indy car race, and she was the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500. And she is the only woman in history to win an Indy car race.) Not bad for a racer from Roscoe who began her career in go-kart racing. Danica is one of the most popular drivers in the history of motor racing. NASCAR used to be a form of racing that was regionalized to the American South, but now it is regarded as one of the highest levels of racing, and it appeals to a world-wide audience and draws international drivers from all the highest levels of auto racing. All racing is driven by advertising, and NASCAR pioneered putting advertising on race cars. Each NASCAR is a billboard that is capable of moving at nearly 200 miles an hour. And people sit on the edge of their seats with their eyes glued to the cars. Every driver needs sponsors to compete, and Danica’s personality and star power appeals to sponsors and television audiences. She is racing’s most popular driver.
If you don’t know where Roscoe, Illinois, it is just a short ride from Beloit, Wisconsin. When Danica was ten, her father bought her a go-kart, and she began her racing career at Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wisconsin, one of America’s oldest go-kart tracks. I have always been interested in racing, and I have driven in over 1,000 races. As luck would have it, I started racing go-karts again in 2001 at Sugar River Raceway. I’ve never raced against Danica, but our paths have crossed a few times. When Danica signed with David Letterman and Bobby Rahal’s Indy Car team, the signing received national attention. Sugar River was Danica’s home track. The first year Danica raced in the Indianapolis 500, we were racing at Sugar River, and our race day was stopped for a rain delay. So we all got inside our cars and trailers to listen to listen or watch the Indy 500. Danica qualified fourth in her first Indy 500 and raced well in the early portion of the race. Then as we all watched in awe, Danica swept into the lead of the Indianapolis 500! A cheer went up from everyone at Sugar River. Even the cows in the field across the road from the track mooed! That is a racing moment I will never forget. To think Danica actually realized her goal and became a professional race car driver at the highest levels was quite an accomplishment.
That same year on Labor Day weekend, the Indy Car series didn’t have a race, and Danica flew back home to visit her parents. When they asked her what she wanted to do on her day off, she told them she wanted to go to Sugar River and watch the races. Danica and her parents spent all day at the track. Danica gave a wonderful talk to everyone, and acknowledged how her experiences are Sugar River were good ones that helped her along towards a racing career. She talked to everyone and answered all the kids’ questions. Her Dad rolled up his shirt sleeves and helped some of the racers make repairs between heat races. I have to say Danica could not have been nicer to everyone. She felt very at home. Success hasn’t changed her. There will always be a lot of pressure on her to prove herself, but I have no doubt she will continue to break many more records.
A year after meeting Danica at Sugar River, she recorded voice-overs for her Peak commercials at my studios and remembered me. She asked me about a girl racer she watched race at Sugar River and even remembered the girl’s name and asked me to say hi to her. It’s nice when somebody famous remains grounded. I truly admire Danica, and I wish her well. When Danica won the pole for the Daytona 500 and raced in the top ten positions for most of the race, she proved she could race with all 43 cars in the field. Personally, I’m looking forward to Danica’s first NASCAR win!