Danica Patrick had yet to see her apartment and was dressing out of the same luggage she took to Japan last week. She'd already appeared on four national television shows, and Monday faced a bank of winking phone line jammed with print reporters.
This is the expected frenzy, the publicity cyclone for the diminutive 26-year-old IndyCar driver. Her attitude, looks and marketability have always assured that. But when she became an IndyCar winner, the first woman to win a major open-wheel race on Sunday at Twin Ring Motegi, well, the wind started blowing a little harder.
What do you think the experience is going to be like the next time you're together with all the drivers, maybe in a drivers' meeting, when you can sort of look around the room and say, ''I've won a race just like that guy and that guy and that guy?''
Well, I'll tell you that's happened (Monday) where there's a rather big group of us, we're going to some of the Honda facilities and doing a Honda appreciation day.
So I'm here with Helio (Castroneves) and Tony (Kanaan) and Marco (Andretti) are coming and (Ryan) Briscoe (who has not won an IRL race) and (Dan) Wheldon and (Scott) Dixon and so many others. I'm not going to say I feel terribly different, but I would be lying if I didn't say that it was a little bit different. You know, you can be just a little bit more proud, you know?
Is there a secret lounge there, with big, cushy leather chairs that the winners get to use?
You know what, it's like you get the special key and yeah, the seats are really fluffy and there's waitresses and you get sushi and whatever you want. It's a pretty elite club.
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The scene was markedly different six weeks ago. Patrick and a handful of other Indy Racing League teams were testing at Sebring International Raceway in preparation for the April 6 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. She was a bit off because it being her turn to host the cold Andretti Green Racing's employees had taken turns harboring, and she wasn't pleased with the morning's test session. But she was insightful about the coming season, the growing pressure of finally validating her fourth-year IRL career with a win.
And she knew she was close.
A win would be huge for the IRL, but selfishly, don't you just want to get it out of the way for yourself?
A big deal for them is still a big deal for myself. I think there will be lots of exciting things that will happen as a result and I want as many people to benefit from that as possible because with more people in the league, too, that's better for me as well. It's definitely a snowball effect.
I'm definitely feeling like at this point, I feel like I have been patient, I feel like I have learned a lot, that now is the time. I am a little bit frustrated, but what are you going to do, you know? You go out there with nothing on the table and you do all you can and have a result. One of these times it's going to be a win. Of course, I wish it would happen sooner than later, but there's a lot of drivers that wish they could win.
Does a driver know when they're close to winning?
I think so, depending on how comfortable you are, that definitely has an effect. And I think just having more experience and feeling like things don't surprise you as much. You feel in synch with what's going on during a race and I think that as a driver you can definitely gauge what's going on around you and how you feel yourself in those situations, if you're ready or not. I don't think there is any way you can ever say, 'It will definitely be within the next three races.' (Editor's note: Her win was in the third race of the season). I think you can feel that all the elements are in place to have the result and wonder when luck is going to come your way. You've got to be a little lucky out there.
Do you have that sensation?
Yeah. I thought that at the end of last year. I felt really good. I think as a driver I definitely feel ready, much more ready than I ever was my first year, that's for sure.
Who's Danica Patrick five years from now?
I would have never guessed I would be here five years ago, so the likelihood of me being able to say where I think I will be in five years is a total shot in the dark. I'm in IndyCar, so I've reached a professional level that would give you some consistency — seeing that five years ago I was only 20 — so I'd like to think that I will have been a very successful driver. Hopefully my endeavors outside the car will also grow so I can provide a good life for myself when I don't want to race anymore and feel like I'm done, and be in a professional level of motorsports, whatever that may be. But that's the best guess I have.
That was a bit of an esoteric one, wasn't it?
No. It's relevant to hear what people think because that, a lot of time, is what they hope for.