Patrick's family earned checkered flag

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – They had dismissed his daughter as a novelty act, taunted her as a marketing creation, and spit out sexist shots that made a father's ears burn and fists clench. T.J. Patrick had endured it all, and now as his daughter Danica became the first female to win a major auto race, through his tears, he declared, "This is the best day of my life."

By then his wife, Bev, had run down and hugged Danica and the two couldn't stop sobbing. "I didn't expect to cry at all," Danica said. But really, how couldn't she?

Danica Patrick made history last weekend in Japan, winning the IndyCar race that so many critics said never would, could or should happen.

There would be no more Anna Kournikova talk. There would be no labeling her just a magazine spread on wheels.

And mostly, there would be a quiet but powerful feeling of victory. Not just for the 26-year-old racer, but the parents who helped guide her to victory while hearing every imaginable derogatory remark about their girl. From when she was a 9-year-old whipping go-karts around the Midwest, to a 16-year-old racer on her own in Europe, to the grandstands and media centers of the Indy Racing League, it was always the same.

Every nasty thing said that hurt Danica, rocked her parents more, that heartbreak of not being able to protect your child's feelings.

"There were times when we had to work really hard and go through some things that, you know, weren't really fun," Danica said Thursday. She sat on a couch in the lobby of the W Hotel off Union Square here and tried to reflect. It was a rare down minute between television talk show appearances in this hectic week.

"I think parents always want the best for their children. And they want to protect them. And even as you get older, whether you are racing or just living in the city there comes a point where your parents can't protect you anymore, they can't save you from everything. And I think that is a helpless feeling for a parent.

"But in the end you get there and that's the relief and that's the happiest day ever. That was something we had been working toward for 17 years."

This was the daughter wanting to protect the parents because the parents wanted to protect the daughter.

This was the life they chose, trying to crash a petite female into the overwhelming male dominated world of auto racing. T.J. and Bev told their daughter she could grow up to be anything she wanted to be. They signed her up for everything, gave her options. When she decided on being a race car driver, well, then race car driver it would be.

When she showed an ability that belied her age and, indeed, at least stereotypically, her sex, they didn't hesitate to let her chase the dream. This wasn't just what she wanted to do, but seemingly was born to do.

There were baffled looks and wrong comments. Others wondered, why bother? It wasn't like a girl racer was going to make it. It was worse as she got older, everything from sexist to hurtful to hateful.

"Especially with me moving to England when I was 16 and not finishing high school the right way, getting my GED," Danica said. "The negative comments were difficult. Really difficult.

She says they weren't stage parents though. If anything they were disciplinarians, the ones still focusing on today so their child could dream of tomorrow.

"They never pushed me to do something but they would pull me along. (They'd say), 'If you want to do this then we'll help you, but if you don't then we're done, right now. You can quit racing right now if you want to.' I don't know how many times I heard that as a kid.

"Your parents are not supposed to be your best friend growing up. But it makes you respect them as an adult."

Now in the wake of that first victory that seemed to have changed everything for Danica, the respect has never been deeper. She understands better now. She appreciates more.

"This was a victory for my family," she said.

It's turned out more than fine for Danica. She has fortune and fame, beauty and brains. She gives as good as she gets most times, powered by a ferocious competitive streak that doesn't care about stepping on toes. And being a female has helped in securing sponsorships and a place on an elite team.

But that made none of the undercurrent of negativity easy to take, particularly before success was assured.

The easy thing for her parents would've been to steer her into a safer, softer, more traditional life. It would have been to lash back at every critic of their little girl. It would have been to pull up stakes, rather than hunker down in what seemed sometimes like the Patricks against the world.

Instead they stood in constant, mostly silent support and kept unwavering faith in their daughter.

"The one common thing we all had was we all believed," she said.

On Sunday morning, after Danica made history, all over America moms and dads told the news to their little girls. They didn't need to be racing fans to point out the article in the paper or online. Then they told them that if Danica Patrick can outrace all those men, then they too could dream any dream, they too could be anything they wanted to be.

"That is such a humbling thought," Danica said.

For the Patricks, the postrace meant a forever flight from Japan to Los Angeles, a ride of emotion and elation; satisfaction and smiles. Before they went to the airport, Tony Kanaan, one of her rival racers, gave her a giant congratulatory bottle of sake.

But they couldn't get it past security. And packing it in a suitcase risked a laundry disaster if it broke.

"So there was only one other option," Danica laughed.

They drank to so many races and so many critics. They drank to so many turned cheeks and covered ears. They drank to family and shared faith. They drank to the best day of all their lives.

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