I knew something big had happened when my Mom called me the day after I returned from the Indianapolis 500. As far as I knew, Mom had never sat through so much as a lap of a professional car race yet here she was, gushing about Danica Patrick.
"Wasn't that great what Danica did!" said Mom, who, like millions of other Americans, had been glued to the television as Patrick came back from a stall and a spinout to take the lead and nearly win the race before low fuel forced her to slip back to fourth. Mom recounted all the drama and then she told me why she had really called. She wanted to tell me that in a deeply hidden part of her soul, she had always wanted to be a race car driver.
I heard the same thing from a number of other women in the following weeks, how they wished someone like Danica had been around when they were kids, because who knows? They might have tried racing, too. Before Danica came along, these women had never thought to express that desire, let alone act on it. Sure, there had been other women to race in the Indy 500 -- Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher all preceded Patrick -- but there had never been a woman who had the car, the team, the talent and the will to actually win it. Danica was the first who was more than the sentimental favorite, more than the underdog. She showed she belonged among her male colleagues and that she is a real threat to beat them in the next few years.
So, for the fine achievement of opening up a new avenue of dreams to half the population while changing the other half's perception of what women are capable of, Danica Patrick is my Sportswoman of the Year.
That's not the only reason she gets my pick. True, she bookended her season with crashes and never did win a race, but nobody did more to elevate the profile of his or her sport. Because of Danicamania, the formerly obscure IRL series enjoyed a terrific boost in TV viewership and track attendance. "I do as much media as I can," said Patrick at Indy. "I want this IRL series to be so kick-butt that NASCAR goes, 'Huh?'"
Being the poster girl for auto racing is not for the faint of heart. The media attention was relentless. During race weekends, cameras followed Patrick everywhere, even to the infield portajohns. Over the course of the 17-race season, she sat through some 750 media interviews, an average of 44 every race week.
There was, inevitably, a backlash to all the attention, including sniping from fellow drivers, the infamous autograph-session boycott by Andretti Green Racing, and the insistence by some media members that Patrick needed to win a race to justify all the hype the media had created. But Patrick never seemed to let outside expectations bother her. She shrugged off the pressure and the negativity -- and stayed focused on negotiating the steep rookie learning curve. As fans in autograph lines from Indianapolis to Sonoma put it when I asked them to sum up Danica's appeal, "She's just cool."
Before going on, let's put a rest to the notion that Patrick's season was a disappointment because she didn't win a race. The guys who have won an IRL race took, on average, 33 starts to get that first victory. Patrick, the 2005 IRL Rookie of the Year, has started just 17. Moreover, she won three pole positions, three more than 2005 IRL and Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon or any of the other three most recent IRL Rookies of the Year claimed in their first seasons.
Patrick's potential is so enormous that I'm willing to bet that within the next few years I won't be the only one nominating her for SI's Sportswoman of the Year.