INDIANAPOLIS — Inside the packed gymnasium at the Center for Inquiry School just off downtown here, fourth grader Reagan Colston grabbed a microphone and through star-struck nerves asked Danica Patrick about empowering girls by racing cars.
This was at an assembly Wednesday in the lead up to Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, where Patrick will make a triumphant return from NASCAR to open wheel racing and then promptly retire. It’s a curtain-call for the retiring 36-year-old. What she leaves behind, as evidenced by Colston’s question – not to mention the screams and cheers of her schoolmates – goes far beyond checkered flags.
“Does anyone here think race car driving is just for boys?” Patrick said, as the crowd of K-8 school kids shouted “No!”
“Does everyone believe they can do whatever they want to do?”
Patrick is the most successful and prominent female racer on a list with few of them. She never won a series title, either in Indy Car or NASCAR, and owns just one victory in a race (2008 Indy Japan 300), but her fame and impact have never been in question. She has other accomplishments, of course, the skill to drive two different types of cars, top 10s on both circuits and the rare double of leading laps at both the Indy and Daytona 500.
“That’s my favorite stat,” Danica said.
She would have liked more. It didn’t seem to matter to the school kids here. Patrick spent her career both embracing and trying not to focus on being a female racer. She never shied away from the obvious or turned down swimsuit spreads or Go Daddy commercials that brought in money, sponsors and fame. On the track, though, she wanted to be known as a driver.
All of it made her polarizing among hard-core race fans, many of whom loved to root against her. It’s not uncommon in racing to cheer against a driver (for whatever reason) and can be part of the fun. For the more casual fans, or their daughters intrigued at the idea of a woman competing among men, there was almost universal admiration.
“I think it obviously means they acknowledge that you can [do anything],” Danica said of Coulston’s question as she was driven back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the city’s west side. “They know it already. She wouldn’t even have the question if she didn’t know it.”
Danica is usually focused on the future, not the past, and even as her retirement approaches she’d rather talk about her budding health and fitness lifestyle companies than her legacy.
“No regrets, not even a single letter,” she said laughing. “You ever see that in ‘We’re the Millers’ when he has a tattoo on his chest but it says ‘No Ragrets?’ [Jason Sudeikis] goes, ‘No regrets huh, not even a single letter?’
“I’m sure [my impact was] small to some, big to others, nothing to some, everything to others,” Danica said. “It’s something that has been an epiphany to some. It probably doesn’t even stop at kids.”
Patrick figured it was time to retire after last season fell apart with sponsor issues and other maladies. NASCAR isn’t exactly booming. She wasn’t really contending. She’s been racing non-stop since she was 10. Still, she’s a few years early for retirement in auto racing.
An idea was formed to finish with one appearance in the Daytona 500 and one in the Indy 500, where she first burst to stardom by finishing fourth as a rookie in 2005. Her return this weekend was meant to be a celebration, with a realistic chance to compete near the front (a top-10 finish, if not more, is very possible).
Yet the reaction hasn’t been quite as she expected.
“No one is excited about it,” she said. “Everyone is so Debbie Downer about it. Everyone is like, ‘Really? What are you going to do? What is race day going to be like? Are you sure?’ ”
Considering her myriad businesses – ranging from workout routines, cookbooks, athletic wear and even a boutique winery – she isn’t lacking for things to do. For now, she’s trying to enjoy all of this – the time with the crew, the time at the track, the familiar faces and places as she wheels around Indianapolis. She’s staying at her parent’s house in suburban Brownsburg.
Mostly Patrick doesn’t seem to want to take this too seriously. She’s always been intense on the track – the YouTube highlights of her storming about and confronting drivers will live forever. Off of it she’s always been more about funny movie quotes and enjoying life.
She may not have dominated racing through the years, but she was interesting to have around. Who didn’t love it when Danica would flip out on someone? Or the vision of women and girls (and plenty of men and boys) clad in neon green dotting the Dale Jr. and Tony Stewart dominated grandstands. Whether you cheered for her or against her, you couldn’t ignore her. The sport was more entertaining with her in it.
“I just want to be remembered as a great driver,” she said. “You can’t stand the test of time for 27 seasons [since she began as a kid] without some talent. I want to be remembered as a girl. I don’t want people to not remember me as a girl. It’s an important part of the story and something I am proud of.
“And that I was just fun to watch and fun to listen to. I was this unique package of different things that came together to make something people are interested in.”
Is that enough? It will have to be. She made bold moves with her career, none bigger than jumping fulltime to NASCAR in 2012, where, she admits, she never quite mastered driving a stock car. She likely would retire with more victories had she stayed in IndyCar, but figures it’s “cooler to have done both.”
No ragrets, right?
“Some of the things I was excited about in NASCAR didn’t turn out as good as I thought,” she said. “Like, I was excited about bumping and hitting and then I realized, ‘Oh God, they can do it to me.’ ”
She laughed. It’s racing, it’s not supposed to be too serious. So that’s part of the goal this weekend. Have fun. If she can push to the lead on Sunday, she’ll go for it. If not, there’s comfort in knowing there are so many Reagan Colstons out there, of all ages, who will define her legacy for her.
And after all these years and all these laps, that’s pretty cool, too.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Police release video of Bucks player getting Tased, arrested
• UFC star asked to show off ‘assets’ by photog
• NFL decides to fine players who don’t stand for anthem
• VP Pence touts #Winning on Twitter after NFL anthem decision