DAYTONA - Danica Patrick — who will start on the pole Saturday in the NASCAR Nationwide race — wanted to clear something up about her wicked crash at Daytona International Speedway during Thursday’s Gatorade Duels.
No, she did not cover her eyes just before she smashed into the inside wall on the backstretch on the last lap of the race.
That she even had to answer that question points out the dilemma that womankind’s most famous race car driver has to face everyday from the Danica haters.
How it started was that in the milliseconds before her No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet careered into the SAFER barrier at about 185 m.p.h. an in-car camera showed her hands coming off of the steering wheel and up in the air.
Thus more than one of the so-called professional media types in the DIS media centre wailed ‘She covered her eyes,’ like it was some sort of cardinal sin of racing.
So when it was put to her on Friday morning at that same media centre, Patrick dutifully and politely described what actually happened.
“I would be happy to clear that up,” she said. “In Indy cars we learn to take the hands off the wheel because the holes for your hand are even smaller and we have dashes and the wheel flips.
“I’ve had plenty of times where I have bruised my thumb, my bones, on the wheel. I was trained to (do that), when there is no saving it and no hope, you let go. That is what I did yesterday.
“Was I covering my eyes? No, I wasn’t covering my eyes, but yes I did close them as I got to the wall. I didn’t want my eyes to pop out of my head.”
For drivers coming from open wheel racing like Patrick, it should be second nature to take your hands off of the wheel in a crash.
Back in 2007 at the Milwaukee Mile, Canada’s Alex Tagliani forgot that rule and ended up with a severely injured hand when he crashed his car in a practice run in the Champ Car World Series. He ended up missing the race.
And no one asked him if he covered his eyes.
The point is that only Patrick has to answer such questions because she is a woman.
Yet she does without rancour and without a hint of annoyance — she just figures it comes with the territory.
“I enjoy being unique,” Patrick said. “I enjoy it all, I really do. I chose to look at the positives that come with it instead of the negatives, but it is a balance.
“I have lots of great fans and I’m always so grateful when people write nice things about me. I feel good. The people that don’t, I also respect that perspective as well.”
The 29-year-old native of Roscoe, Ill., has faced this kind of scrutiny from the very first day she showed up back in 2003 with team owner Bobby Rahal at the Long Beach Grand Prix.
With little experience in North America — she had done her open wheel apprenticeship in England as a teenager — she became an instant target for pokes and jabs inside the paddock after it was announced she was being groomed by Rahal Letterman Racing for a Champ Car seat.
That kind of reception and resultant pressures did not let up through her IndyCar years and now into her first full season of NASCAR racing.
Through it all, Patrick has managed to earn a fan base that is the envy of race cars drivers the world over.
Patrick said she just takes it — the good and the bad — all in stride.
“I truly don’t feel like anything more gets put on me,” she said. “I feel like there are a lot of hopes, but I don’t feel the pressure that I have to do something.
“I feel very lucky to be in the situation that I’m in. I feel lucky to be unique and different. I feel lucky to have the fan base that I do. If that helps in anyway or if we can work together to make it even better than that is just a win, win.”
But there is one big difference with her experience so far in NASCAR.
At the height of her popularity in IndyCar, some drivers threatened to boycott autograph signing sessions because organizers seemed to give Patrick preferential treatment and why not, her line-ups were more that three times as long as all the other drivers combined and that remained the case right up to her final open wheel race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October.
In the NASCAR garage she has been welcomed with open arms. Those guys, after all, know the value of marketing and know that if Patrick brings more eyeballs to the sport they all are winners.
“When you have more people showing up for the races (to see Patrick), you have more people tuning in on TV,” said NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. this week. “I think it’s gonna be good.”