From Small Town to the Fast Lane: Meet Danica Patrick

Even if you don’t follow racing, you’re probably familiar with the name Danica Patrick. She’s easily the most famous female race car driver of all time, and she’s still showing off when she gets behind the wheel, even if she’s retired. But how much do you know about this legendary athlete?
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Alamy Stock Photo

We’ll trace her life from its humble beginnings in the midwest to where she stands now. She’s an inspiration to women, and especially athletes and drivers everywhere. Find out where she started, what she’s up to now, and where she’s headed. No matter where it is, it’s going to be fast.

Midwest Beginnings

Danica Sue Patrick was born on March 25th, 1982, in the small town of Beloit, Wisconsin, but she grew up in an even smaller town, Roscoe Illinois. Her parents were Terry Joseph Patrick Jr. and Beverly Ann Patrick.

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Being a racecar driver was never on her list of dreams at the beginning. That list was, however, quite extensive: she thought about being a veterinarian, a singer, and a secretary. So how did she first get interested in driving? Just like so many other things in life, it was because she was bored. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but boredom is the mother of lifelong careers.

Starting with Go-Karts

Before she was even a teenager, Danica and her younger sister Brooke didn’t have a lot to do, so the parents started looking for something they could all do together for some family bonding time.

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The parents’ first choice was a boat, but then the girls tried out a friend’s go-kart. It was actually Brooke who first decided she wanted her own or wanted more chances at driving, but the girls tended to hang out together, so Danica wasn’t far behind. Their parents assented, so Danica was only ten (and Brooke eight) when they had their own rides.

In Love With Racing

It took no time at all for Danica to fall in love with racing. She loved racing against her sister and friends, and it wasn’t long before she decided she needed to start competing. She started improving in coordination, courage, and handling skills.

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When she was thirteen she asked her parents if they could move to California so she could compete year-round. Some might be tempted to call Danica a child prodigy at driving, but that’s not really how driving works. Drivers have to build up their nerves and skills through repeated training, and Danica was sure to keep doing so.

Not Just a Driver

Danica was training herself how to handle the vehicles, but she was still a teenager. She was a cheerleader for her high school, and also babysat for her neighbors. Imagine being able to say your babysitter was Danica Patrick. Wild. Despite these other activities, it’s been told that her mind was very much on driving a good deal of the time.

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Kids and teens have a wonderful ability to focus on things more than adults. They don’t have to worry about taxes or taking care of kids or all that other fun stuff. Some of them focus on things that will take them around the world.

Supportive Parents

Danica’s parents stuck with her and supported her the entire time she was learning the ropes to the driving world. Having a good support system makes a lot of things much easier, and Danica’s parents have been cheering her on from the very beginning.

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They were even there helping her win! Both of her parents knew their way around cars and machines. Her father was her first crew chief and racing coach. He changed tires, refueled, and did all the other maintenance on her cars. Her mother preferred to stay clean and kept track of all of Danica’s stats instead. Talk about a family bonding activity.

Making a Name for Herself

By the time most girls were celebrating their sweet sixteens, Danica had scooped up regional and national go-kart awards. The queen of the karts began to want more, and once she finally reached the legal driving age, the world was her oyster. She was ready to shift gears to real road racing, but it wasn’t going to be easy.

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It was going to require a couple of things, such as making the entire family move. It was also going to require making some tough decisions. Still sixteen, Danica was still very much a child – and not fully equipped to make them all.

Spreading the Word

While Danica was working on making the transition to road racing, Danica’s dad Terry began to regularly contact local news stations in order to chronicle his daughter’s performance. He wanted to boost her popularity, which he knew would help her make it in the long run.

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This effort paid off when MTV of all places caught wind of the up-and-coming Danica. They made a segment about her efforts, and that caught the attention of a man by the name of John Mecom Jr. He was the former owner of the New Orleans Saints and Texas oilman who was looking to bring the fledgling Patrick under his wing.

Swapping Schools

Mecom wanted to hire Danica for the United Kingdom racing circuit and offered to sponsor her. His one caveat was that she attended a high-quality racing school. The entire Patrick family was thrilled, and a deal was struck.

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This led to huge changes for the entire family. One of them was moving to England, which of course meant dropping out of high school in the middle of her junior year. Leaving behind all her friends, her life, and her home, Danica was still ready to take the next step toward a racing career.

Leaving High School Behind

With the real talent and promise that Danica was showing as a driver, she and her family made the decision to pull her out of high school and move to England. The changes were big, but Danica was dedicated to furthering her driving career in any way possible.

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She had to adjust to a new country, new rules, and new vehicles – we shouldn’t have to tell you that there are big differences between go-karts and actual cars. The braking system in particular is much different and takes a lot of adjustment. In the late nineties, the Patricks made their way across the pond and got to work.

Becoming Tougher

Moving always brings challenges, but Danica was up against a few more than the normal move, even an international one. The European race world at the time was full of guys who weren’t interested in letting a young American girl into their club. It was no doubt tough for Danica to push through, but she’s said the experience helped her develop a strong sense of self.

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However, these weren’t the only issues that plagued the young driver. Rumors cropped up of an extravagant lifestyle. Getting put into the spotlight helped Patrick find her first sponsor, but it didn’t go away once that happened – she was a celebrity (though a small one) and nothing beats celebrity gossip.

Losing Her Sponsor

The rumors, founded or not, forced Mecom’s hand, and Danica was dropped from the roster of drivers. Danica was still determined, however, and the rest of the family had her back. Though her financial backing was gone, Terry Patrick agreed to put up money to keep Danica racing.

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This meant not only schooling, but material and equipment, and of course the biggest item: the car. No doubt Terry got used to writing big checks, and in the back of his mind, he knew it was a gamble for his girl. However, only two years later, that gamble paid off, and that was where Danica’s career really hit the green light.

Second Place

Danica got her first big dose of attention by coming in second place in the Formula Ford Festival in 2000. This British competition had only Ford-powered, single-seat racing cars. Now, the second place might not seem like the best start, and Danica COULD have gotten first, but she still lost by only half a second. Not even.

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It’s also said that she had the best performance an American has ever shown in this European competition. And, remember, she was only eighteen at the time. On the podium, she had to stand below British racer Anthony Denis Davidson, himself a legend in racing, but we bet she was still smiling wide.

Put the Pedal Down

The Indy 500 is one of the most popular sporting events in the world and something that every driver aspires to join. Drivers have to put in hundreds of thousands of laps and prove that they’re going to be the best before they get a chance. Female racers have it especially rough, with the race banning women until the seventies, and only a few females competing after that.

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Danica got the shock of a lifetime, then, when the world-famous racer Bobby Rahal offered her an Indy contract in 2002. However, her season didn’t exactly go perfectly, and she ended up not competing in the Indy 500.

A Second Chance

After a few more years of making the rounds, Danica had another chance with Rahal Letterman Racing (that’s David Letterman’s, btw). The year 2004 was her next big chance, and she wasn’t about to let it go to waste. This time, her year was good enough that she was going to be able to join the Indy 500.

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Danica had proved she didn’t only have the skill to drive, but also the passion and patience that allowed her to keep going even when things got rough. Now she had a big chance at making her mark and bringing home some high-quality hardware.

Starting Rough

Unfortunately, Patrick’s 2005 career year didn’t start the way anybody had planned. In her very first Indy race, Patrick was part of a multi-car crash, when another driver lost control of his vehicle and went spinning across the track. Danica was right behind the spinning car and got clipped. The impact sent her straight up the wall.

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She was aware of the dangers but probably didn’t expect her first big race to land her in the hospital. Thankfully, her injuries amounted to a mild concussion. Her first race was a no-go, but the year was just beginning, and Patrick had plenty of time to make up for lost ground.

Staying Focused

Her first race ended with a crash, but it was only the first race. She would have loved to make it to the top ten on her first race, but she had plenty of other chances. Only a few races later she nearly won. She continued to keep her eye on the prize and managed to make history that same year.

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Two months after her first race ended in a crash, Danica was going to be part of her first Indy 500 race. The number after the race is the number of miles. It’s an incredible test of endurance and concentration, and only the best get a chance to compete.

Just Barely Missing the Podium

Out of the thirty-three drivers that competed that day, Danica Patrick ended up taking fourth. It was a huge accomplishment for the young driver. Not only that, but she was also the lead car for a full nineteen laps during the race.

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While Danica had been racing for years, this was similar to a college football player making his start in the NFL – just on another level. Still, Danica proved she had the skills to hang with the big boys. Her performance included several firsts, such as the fastest overall practice speed for a woman, which earned her pole position at the next Indy race in Kansas.

Gaining Accolades

She was only the second woman in history to earn pole position at an Indy race, and the racing world took notice. Still technically a rookie in the league, she had plenty of eyes on her as she competed.

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The series and the racing world took notice of her skills and named her the 2005 “Rookie of the Year.” Not a bad start at all, even with the crash. In addition, she was also named the Indy Racing League’s “Most Popular Driver” for three years in a row. Practically overnight, she became a female athlete that everyone had to respect.

A Huge First

Danica was making a name for herself. She was ambitious, talented, and a darling to the media. She never stopped working hard to prove she was a champion, and the years continued rolling. Her driving improved, and she became a consistent big-league name.

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In 2008, her hard work paid off in a huge way, when she won her very first race. She took home the trophy from Japan’s Twin Ring Motegi Indy 300, becoming not only the first woman to win the race, but the first female driver to win any major-league open-wheel racing event.

Number One

By the time Danica was twenty-three, she was Rookie of the Year in a prestigious organization. At twenty-six she made sports history. What could be next? It was being ranked number one in AOL’s “Annual List of Top Web, Mobile, and Video Searches.” She was the most-searched athlete, surpassing big names like golfer Tiger Woods and quarterback Tom Brady.

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Her skill on the track was no doubt a huge factor in this, but another reason was the modeling contracts she was doing at the same time. Critics pointed out most of her fame came from spreads in “Sports Illustrated” or ad campaigns, but Danica didn’t back down.

Doing Things Her Way

If you haven’t been able to figure it out by now, Danica wasn’t going to do things the way history usually saw them play out. She posed in a bikini for “Sports Illustrated,” winked at the camera in GoDaddy.com ads, and plenty more. She was feisty, she was saucy, and she wasn’t going to listen to the haters.

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Paradoxically, Patrick didn’t like being called sexy, despite her obvious beauty. She thought it was the lowest form of compliment – here she was proving to the world a woman could win in the fast lane and she usually just heard that she was sexy.

Taking the World by Storm

Somehow, someway, this small-town midwest girl had taken the world by storm. She was on the cover of magazines, winning races against established pros, and doing it all in a way that made the entire globe sit up and take notice.

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Not everything she did was universally accepted (case in point, the aforementioned steamy Godaddy.com ads) but there was no one who could dismiss her or say her star wasn’t still on the rise. Beauty, fame, and talent were all hers. What was left? Enter someone by the name of Paul Edward Hospenthal.

A Racing Heart

As her racing career sped up and her fame increased, Patrick made a connection with Paul Edward Hospenthal, seventeen years her senior. The two first met while Danica was still working her way toward the Indy races. Hospenthal was a physical therapist for famous athletes, and then he met Danica when he was helping her out with a hip injury she had sustained from…yoga class.

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Before too long the couple started seeing each other romantically, though Danica tried hard to keep the relationship out of the public eye. She was mostly successful, but celebrity relationships are like candy to the rag-writers at tabloids.

An Even Better Year Than We Thought

In 2005, the same year Danica won Rookie of the Year and Most Popular Driver, she also got engaged to Hospenthal after three years of dating. By then she had earned her status as a pop-culture icon and was making plenty of cash, something she wasn’t all that accustomed to.

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Paul, however, had built his physical therapy business from the ground up and had a keen financial mind. Patrick related that she will always be grateful for the lessons he taught her about managing money, saving for retirement, and taking care of one’s self-worth. Paul, for his part, was keen on passing on his knowledge to his new wife.

Not Meant to Be

Sadly, it seemed this wasn’t a relationship that was going to stand the test of time. After seven years of marriage, the pair split up. No one but those close to them can be sure of the exact reasons, but they seem to have separated amicably.

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Seven years is past the first danger zone of a relationship (one to two years after marriage) but smack dab in the second period. In fact, years seven and eight of a marriage are the most common for couples to go their separate ways. Danica is anything but typical, but she and Paul fell prey to all-too-common relationship pitfalls.

Not Slowing Down

Patrick loves to take things quickly, so it wasn’t long after her separation from Paul that she found a new relationship. This time it was with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. After all, she was one of the most eligible bachelorettes in the world, famous for her talent and beauty.

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Stenhouse was a catch himself, having won a couple of his own Rookie of the Year awards, and was a back-to-back Nationwide Series champ (2011 and 2012). However, this relationship didn’t get as far as before. The couple dated for five years and then Ricky ended it, stating he felt pressured to propose to Danica before he was ready.

A Year to Remember

2013 was one of those good years for Danica. Not only was she getting along with her new beau, but she also achieved record-breaking success in none other than the famous NASCAR Cup Series.

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Just a few months after news of her breakup with husband Paul, she got the fastest qualifying time for the Daytona 500 race, and also made it into the top ten of that race. She made it into eighth, that being the highest spot a woman has ever attained in the race. The Daytona is called the “Great American Race,” and a lot of people suddenly saw a glass ceiling shattered for women in racing.

Not Just for Women

Women and girls around the world watched Danica’s career with great interest. While Danica was happy she was encouraging women, she didn’t necessarily feel like a spokesperson for the cause.

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She was making headlines and breaking records, but as she told “The LA Times” in 2020, she didn’t have a message for women. She had a message for people. She’s always wanted to focus on inspiring everyone to push themselves toward achievements. Patrick might be credited with opening racing up to women, which we’re sure she’s happy about, but that wasn’t her full goal.

You Can’t Race Forever

Patrick believed people shouldn’t be pigeonholed into being one-dimensional. In her case, she didn’t want to be seen as just for women. To her, her strongest message was “do what you love and be yourself.”

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With this kind of down-to-earth thinking and the ambition that Danica had used all her life, many people thought she would continue racing much longer than she actually did. Yet it was in 2018, after only thirteen years in the big leagues, when Danica started to see she wasn’t as dedicated to racing as she had once been. Injuries and age had taken their toll, and she knew she needed to move on.

Going out With a Bang

One wrong twitch while behind the wheel and you, your car, fellow drivers, and even audience members could be at risk. Danica felt she couldn’t keep her skills sharp enough to continue. Her decision was also helped by losing one of her sponsors in 2018, and she made the decision that it would be her last year racing full-time.

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However, she wanted to finish on a high note. She said that she didn’t want to be remembered for petering out and fading away like so many other athletes do – she wanted to be remembered for winning and being a champion.

The Final Double

Over the years, the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 had become known as the “Danica Double,” being her two favorite races of the season. When Danica announced her retirement, she said that she would still race in those two competitions, being celebratory send-offs for a one-of-a-kind legend in the racing world. However, things didn’t exactly go as planned.

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In both of the races, Danica was unable to finish. Instead, she ended up in crashes that took her out. She might not have gotten the ending she’d hoped for, but thankfully 2018 brought more than just driving to the table.

Fraternizing With the Enemy

Danica was born in Wisconsin but grew up in Illinois, and had been a Chicago Bears fan her whole life. Surprise surprise, then, when she started a relationship with Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The relationship came quickly on the heels of her breakup with Stenhouse, and the two began a high-profile romance in February of 2018, having known each other since 2012.

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Though a Bears fan, she was more than happy to cheer on her fella as his team stomped hers repeatedly. Rodgers was at her side as she drove in the Danica Double to formalize her retirement.

Spending Some Time on the Red Carpet

As a bona fide celebrity, Danica had plenty of things to do during 2018. One of them was being chosen to host the ESPY awards, though she didn’t exactly bring the house down. Her comedic timing was a little off, and she was sort of awkward on stage, but comments did point out she was stunning in her off-the-shoulder mini dress and open sandals.

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This event not only marked her red carpet debut but that of Rodgers as well. While she won’t be remembered as the best host ever, she still performed well enough. Even after all that tense time behind the wheel, she probably still got nervous on stage.

Done After Two Years

While Patrick and Rodgers had traveled the world and taken plenty of swoon-worthy Instagram pictures together, their relationship didn’t make the cut. July 2020 saw a flurry of fan speculation when Danica unfollowed Rodgers on the picture-based social media platform. Rumors began to circulate, and the two soon broke up.

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While both parties have been somewhat cryptic, Danica would later say that they simply grew apart. It’s a fact of life – sometimes relationships end. Even relationships between two famous people. According to them, there was no specific reason. Danica revealed on her podcast that any guy she dates will have his work cut out for him.

Moving On

Both halves of this athletic power couple have moved on. Rodgers quickly started seeing “Big Little Lies” actress Shailene Woodley, and popped the question after just a few months of dating. Information tells us that it was a simple case of when you know, you know.

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Danica might still be single, but she’s focused on her business empire. She has a wine brand called Somnium and a mixed athletic and leisure clothing company she called Warrior. She’s also been writing books, including her memoirs, and has a podcast series called “Pretty Intense”. Those business lessons she got from Paul must have really paid off.

The Cameo and the Good Work

That’s not all that Danica has been doing since hanging up her driving gloves. In 2019 she made a cameo appearance in “Charlie’s Angels” as a driving instructor. She was happy to have a role that honored her history as a driver.

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She’s also become known for her philanthropy. Her causes are often in the vein of providing healthy food to people who might not have access to the proper nutrients. Anyone who follows her social media accounts knows she constantly pushes the importance of eating right, exercise, and staying healthy.

Her Small Stature

Nobody can deny that Danica is huge – unless you’re talking physically. At a mere five-foot-two and usually only a hundred pounds, she’s a tiny, tiny person. When you think about it, the lighter a driver is the better it is, since the car doesn’t have to work as hard.

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However, Patrick received plenty of negative comments from other racers, including Robby Gordon, saying her reduced weight compared to the bigger drivers was an unfair advantage. Gordon even went so far as to mention boycotting racing against her unless something was done to make it fairer.

Too Busy for Kids

For most of her life, Danica has been busy making sure she was already ready to win. While she was married to Paul Hospenthal for seven years, the couple never had kids. Since Patrick is so tiny, driving with a baby bump was something that just couldn’t be considered, for both her health and the child’s.

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However, Danica has gone through the hormone treatments procedures to freeze her eggs, stating that she wanted to make sure she had options. Her focus on health and physical fitness has helped her greatly if she does choose to become a parent.

A Focus on Head Injuries

Over the years, new information about head injuries in sports has become apparent. NASCAR and other driving organizations, without a doubt, had to take note. Despite the hundreds of rules and guidelines that drivers follow in order to keep themselves safe, crashing into a wall at a hundred and fifty miles per hour results in damage.

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Stats from ESPN have estimated that Patrick has had dozens of concussions over the years and that she’s at serious risk if she’s in another big crash. This risk was one of the reasons why Patrick decided it was time to take a step away from racing.

How Is She Rated?

We’ve called Danica a champion in this article, but she’s never actually achieved the podium in any NASCAR events. She came in much-heralded, but never really lived up to the hype. Despite being one of racing’s best-known drivers, she doesn’t have the success as many of her fellow racers.

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Still, her status as a role model for many young drivers has kept her in the spotlight. As time goes on, people might start to be more negative about Patrick’s actual driving, even going so far as to be called overrated, but nobody will be able to deny the mark she made in pop culture.

Never Stop Growing

Even though she’s retired from racing, Danica is still incredibly active physically. As an athlete (if not the traditional type) she’s had a lifetime of focusing on her own health. Skiing and snowboarding are two activities that she seems to enjoy. She even posted some inspiring words about focusing on both strengths and weaknesses.

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She focused on doing backbends during yoga because she wanted to improve the flexibility in her hips and thighs. When it comes to improving your weaknesses or strengths, experts are mixed. Some say improve strengths to make them overpower weaknesses, some say it increases weaknesses. We can guess which method Danica ascribes to.

Time with Bear Grylls

Even if you don’t watch his shows, you probably know Bear Grylls as the ultimate outdoor man. Danica had the privilege of being on one of his shows in 2021. Grylls’s shows are all about facing what you fear, and Danica also had to do so. She wrote on her Instagram account that she did everything that scares her the most and that growth is waiting on the other side of fear.

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She recounted that in life. She’s had to go through incredible highs and lows. She’s had her heartbroken, been in the winner’s circle, and everything in between.

Trying Love Out Again

Patrick is proof that age isn’t a limit. At the age of thirty-nine, she found herself with a new romantic partner in life, this time with Carter Comstock, the co-founder of the meal prep kit business Freshly Meals.

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The relationship went public in March of 2021, and the two seemed to be very happy as they made their announcements. Clearly, Danica isn’t the kind of person to take things slow – it’s also clear she hasn’t given up on finding happiness with other people. It’s inspiring to all of us not to give up too soon.

A Problem With Anger

A lot has gone right in Danica’s life, but one thing that constantly hounds her is her problems with anger. It’s been seen over and over that if she doesn’t get her way she’ll let people know she is upset. She’ll stomp her feet, flip the bird, and cuss out who she believes to be at fault.

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Danica herself has worked hard to change. She didn’t really care how people thought of her, but there was always so much cleanup to be done, people to apologize to, and drama, that she found it easier just to bite her tongue.

A Marketing Mind

Endorsing everything from granola bars to dentists, Patrick has a mind for marketing. Although her GoDaddy.com ads have been pulled from television for being too racy. This kind of activity hasn’t gone without criticism, but do any fellow drivers have a wheel to race on?

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Their cars are revolving billboards with more sponsors than laps. It’s extremely common for drivers to make money off branding. Sadly, it looks like many people unfairly targeted Danica.

Sponsor Lawsuits

Patrick and her racing team entered into a three-year contract with Nature’s Bakery in 2015, turning them into the main sponsor of the driver. Only one year into the sponsorship, however, Nature’s Bakery pulled out, stating Patrick had endorsed a rival product.

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A lawsuit rose, since the agreement never said Patrick couldn’t appear with rival products. Additionally, the other product was a protein powder – not exactly a rival. Patrick’s team had the upper hand, and Nature’s Bakery eventually settled with her and her team to the tune of thirty-one million dollars, the remainder of their contract. Nothing better than getting what you’re worth.

A Series Ironwoman

There is another Indy record that Danica holds. She has the record for most consecutive races with a staggering fifty at the end of her seven-year Indy career. The next most and former record holder was Scott Dixon, a series champ, whose consecutive races amounted to a mere twenty-four.

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Dixon has the chance to take his record back, however, as his career is still moving. Another record she holds is a record ten super bowl commercials, though with all the celeb cameos we see each year, we wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t have this one for long.

A Sponsor Herself

Danica had oodles of sponsors big and small during her time as a racer, but she did a little bit of her own sponsoring. It wasn’t a fellow racer, of course – she sponsored her niece’s under-10 girl’s softball team in Phoenix. They called themselves the Green Machines and wore uniform pieces to mimic Patrick’s colors.

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When she has the chance, she visits their practices or games, frequently slowing the diamond action down with her celebrity status. She tries to keep a low profile but has also stated that it’s just softball practice. If the girls want to come over and meet her there are worse things in the world.

Favorite Numbers

Danica Patrick has two numbers that she usually chooses for her cars if she has the choice. The first is four, her favorite number. Even if she can’t get the single-digit number, she tries to get a number that at least has four in it.

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When she can’t get any of those, she’s sprung for ten, such as her Stewart Haas Racing Spring Cup car. Part of her reasoning for choosing that number was it was the age she started racing go-karts. It’s not fully known why she likes the number four, but that doesn’t matter much. It’s a pretty good number. Not top three, though.

Doing a Good Deed

Just like any of us, Danica Patrick has plenty of likes and dislikes. The most interesting of these is probably that she has a visceral dislike of popsicles. Despite this, Patrick did something wonderful in 2020. When an eighteen-year-old Green Bay Packer fan, Callie Kessler, had her tonsils removed, her parents took a tearful anesthesia-fueled video of Kessler asking Aaron Rodgers (Patrick’s bf at the time) for four hundred popsicles.

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Patrick and Rodgers together arranged for Kessler to receive the popsicles (actually four hundred Otter Pops). Kessler also professed her love for Aaron Rodgers, which didn’t get the same kind of response, but at least she has her popsicles.

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