Danica Patrick started her third NASCAR Nationwide series race Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with no idea of the role she played in the lives of three young women more than half a continent away.
This is the story of those three Canadian university students, who happen to be elite race-car drivers.
And not-so-coincidently, each of the three young Canadians has a Danica Patrick story that helped propel them to the upper echelons of their respective racing disciplines.
In 2005, just weeks after Patrick’s rookie-of-the-year performance at the Indianapolis 500, there was 14-year-old Alison MacLeod winning her first United States Auto Club midget race at tiny Indianapolis Speedrome.
Although it is only about 5 kms west of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Speedrome may just as well be on the other side of the moon in terms of getting the attention of the world’s racing media.
Yet Mississauga’s MacLeod knew at the very moment she crossed the finish line first that if she ever met Patrick face-to-face she would have to thank her.
“I had been racing Go-karts around Ontario,” she said. “I had won the Mosport 80cc championship the year before and placed fourth in the world karting championship in Florida.”
The tsunami that followed Patrick after her heroic run at Indy had prompted Ford Racing to seek out the best young female race-car drivers in North America, then throw them into a tournament of sorts.
MacLeod was one of the invitees. At the end of the process she was one of only three girls left standing. She was offered a professional racing contract on the spot and has been a part of Ford’s driver development system ever since.
A third-year marketing major at the University of Guelph, MacLeod hopes to parlay her Ford sponsorship into a career in NASCAR.
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A few years before Patrick’s breakthrough at the Indy 500, the 27-year-old native of Roscoe, Ill., made her debut in the Atlantic Series championship at the then Toronto Molson Indy. She would win the first pole position of her career.
In the stands that day was 12-year-old Jamie Horner, of Bowmanville, Ont.
Although already well-versed in auto racing — she had been a fixture at race tracks around Ontario when her dad (Dave Horner) competed in the OSCAAR Outlaw Super Late Models series — it wasn’t until right then that she figured this was something that was possible for her.
“There just weren’t any girls in the OSCAAR series then,” she said.
After trying her hand at Go-karts, her mother worried that the open cockpit of those machines lacked the safety standards of the stock cars, so she convinced her dad to build her a full-bodied race car.
Horner has since won races at Mosport’s half-mile oval, Kawartha Speedway and Peterborough Speedway.
She is a third-year anthropology major at the University of Waterloo. Next for her racing career is a move up in class to Late Model stock car racing this season at Sunset Speedway, near Barrie.
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For 21-year-old Caitlin Johnston it was a chance meeting with Patrick at Watkins Glen International in upper New York State that made her believe she, too, could work her way up the ladder to racing stardom.
Johnston was in her rookie year competing in the U.S. F2000 series — one of several series that serve as classrooms for drivers who want to advance in open-wheel racing. And Watkins Glen was the lone opportunity for her to race on the same weekend at the same track as Patrick and the rest of the IndyCar series stars.
It was at a time when Johnston — like just about everybody in the sport — was struggling to obtain enough sponsorship for her to attend all of the F2000 events.
“I would see (Patrick) in the paddock and how professional she was,” Johnston said.
“Then I got invited to meet her. It was great. She was great. She encouraged me to keep going.”
Her talk with Patrick convinced the Orangeville, Ont. native that anything was possible.
Johnston is a fourth-year political science major at Wilfred Laurier University.
She’ll be back in the F2000 series this season striving for a championship.