Win, lose or draw, fans have taken to Danica Patrick in legions. She's amassed more than a million followers on Facebook and Twitter, and as the only female driver in NASCAR, her every move is watched with interest.
I've followed Formula One since a teenager, and my hero was the legendary Ayrton Senna. Senna brought more to motor sports than speed and skill; he brought to motor sports a conviction and determination based on his belief in his God-given talent. He was far more than a racing driver; he was an artist, a perfectionist, an idealist who once said that if you see a gap, and don't take it, "you're no longer a racing driver".
It's this sort of passion that creates immense interest in motor sports. Characters like Senna who bring it alive.
While I wouldn't place Danica Patrick in Senna's league as a racing driver (frankly, I would place anyone in Senna's league), she's what I would call the female Ayrton Senna of motor racing as far as her influence is concerned.
The simple fact is that Danica has drawn thousands, if not millions of people towards motor racing. The diminutive 5' 2" (some reports say 5' 1") lass from Roscoe, Illinois, has inspired millions.
And that's not only what motor sports needs, but all sports. It needs "hero figures" who dare to stand above the crowd, win or lose, and sports especially needs female pioneers. That's why the crowd at Daytona in 2013 went wild when Danica led a lap (likewise when she led the 2005 Indy 500 for 19 laps), becoming the first female to lead a lap at Daytona under green.
If Danica were to retire tomorrow, her legacy would still be forever embedded in both Indy Car and NASCAR, and the many fans she drew to the sport, who might otherwise not be bothered.
Flashback Friday: Patrick's father recalls start of Danica Mania.
“It wasn’t even in my realm of thoughts,” T.J. Patrick, Danica’s father, told FOXSports.com. “People don’t realize I’ve been coming to the Indianapolis 500 since 1974. I’m on the North Forty partying, getting drunk and then coming in here and watching the race all hung-over. I never dreamt that I would have my kid in it, let alone my daughter. Then to have her be as good as she is here I never dreamt that.”
“Leading up to it, it was almost like a blur because it happened so fast,” T.J. Patrick said. “Even the race was crazy. I met with her after that and she was changing clothes. She was upset. She was crying and said, ‘I should have won the pole.’ I told her, ‘Danica, you gained more respect today by saving that car, not crashing and keeping your foot in it than if you had won the pole. If you had won the pole they would have said you had the fastest car. You proved today you can drive the race car.’
Lest we forget Paul Dana , a team mate of Danica's whose tragic death in 2006 deeply affected all of his family, friends, fans and team mates. RIP.