For Patricks, like father, like daughter

Courtesy Danica Racing

By all accounts, Danica Patrick is very similar to her father, T.J.. They're so in tune he can feel what she's feeling on the track.

T.J. Patrick fidgeted with nothing official to occupy him, acknowledging acquaintances with a nod, shaking the hands of crewmen and hugging the family members and friends he could reach. Somewhere outside the ever-contracting pocket of navigable space around his daughter's race car, his wife, Bev, and daughter Brooke were plying the crush on the grid before the Daytona 500.

For his other daughter, Danica, the pole sitter for NASCAR's most celebrated race, the ever-present throng that weekly surrounds her No. 10 Chevrolet had become ravenous for a sliver of what felt like an impending moment of historic weight.

Jeff Siner/Getty Images

The 10-year-old girl became a phenomenon, never more evident than when she won the pole at this year's Daytona 500, stirring the throng of fans before she led the field to the start of the race.

In the old days, after T.J. had set up his daughters' first go-kart course with paint cans in the back lot of a business park, he could have tinkered away these interminable minutes, checking carburetors and brakes. That was before the racing machines got bigger, more powerful, more technologically enslaved devices than a former snowmobile and Midget racer could realistically have an opinion about making faster. That was before he and his wife realized the phenomenon that was Danica Patrick had become more than parents and shopkeepers from Roscoe, Ill., could manage. That was before he realized the little girl who is like him in so many ways had to figure out how to push her way through the crowd on her own.

When she finally did just before engines were ordered to fire before the Daytona 500, he wished her well and slipped off to his perch above the Daytona 500 club overlooking pit road and the Victory Lane amphitheater.

"If she wins," he said, before disappearing into the crowd, "I'll be able to just float right down."

More like dad

Danica Patrick's failsafe for describing her father to unknowing security guards always has been that he looks "Mexican," even after shaving his mustache. He's even carried the nickname Pablo among his friends and family, she said with a laugh.

"He missed the Italian we got and went to sort of more of a Mexican look. It's his coloring," she said.

Danica's mother requires no such identification, even with glasses and short-cropped hair, having passed her petite frame and cheekbones on to her daughters. But while Danica is the outward projection of her mother, she is the inward reflection of her father.

"She's definitely more my dad," Brooke said. "I feel like I'm more 50-50 and she's more 75-25."

Bev Patrick has assessed the percentage a bit higher, calling father and daughter "exactly the same," with the same passion for racing.

Danica seemed to conjure so many similarities that she struggled to winnow the list.

"Oh, dear," she said. "Very fiery, passionate, caring, giving, unconditional, fun. That's how he is, and I guess I'm like those things."

We have the same mentality, the same everything. Wherever she would be racing, she would know where I was on the track. She would say, 'I know where you were.' It's the same for me. I feel what she feels out there.
T.J. Patrick

"We have the same mentality, the same everything," T.J. said. "Wherever she would be racing, she would know where I was on the track. She would say, 'I know where you were.' It's the same for me. I feel what she feels out there. We're in tune temperament-wise, and she's probably … she has to keep hers under check. I don't have to. I've got no sponsor. I've got nobody with a microphone in front of me. So I can say what I want, when I want."

It's a right T.J. has exercised since his daughter's first forays into competitive karting, when what he saw as a noxious combination of jealousy and sexism didn't mesh with two lessons he was hell-bent to instill: that she could be as good as she wanted and that she was a driver, not a girl driver.

T.J. has never suffered in silence well. He admits there were "a few skirmishes with dads."

"We always heard that we were cheating or they didn't like her being rough with their kids, so we had skirmishes, nothing too serious," he said. "There were years, basically, wherever there was a big race from Florida to California, Wisconsin to Long Island -- everywhere -- Charlotte, there was always the issue with this girl showing up, and everybody has the hot dog at their track and there's times we would go out and damned near lap them.

"That would get people pissed off and yelling and screaming, and all of a sudden the next race they're trying to wreck your kid because they know she is going to win. Yeah, there's a lot of that stuff going on."

Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar Series champion who competed against Danica in karts, open wheel and now NASCAR, experienced the wrath of T.J. as a 16-year-old, when Danica wrecked him at the North American Karting Championship at Charlotte Motor Speedway attempting a last-lap pass for the lead.

"The last corner at Charlotte is not a hard-breaking corner, but you have to take about half your speed off. So if you're going 55, you have to get down to about 35," he said. "I braked for the corner, and right as I turned in the corner, she just never lifted and drove right over top of me. The front bumper of her go-kart got wedged up, grabbed a hold of my helmet, so as she drove up over top of me, it basically dragged me out of my kart and she went upside down. And then she's crying, and her dad is screaming at me like I had something to do with it."

T.J. didn't demand she race, Danica said, but demanded from her early interest as a 10-year-old that she race correctly, which meant hard. Her aggression was a reflection of his escapades on dirt tracks and snow.

He was really hard on me, but he's not someone who was a pusher. He was a puller. He'd tell me that I could quit tomorrow, but if I wanted to do it, he was going to help me do it right. And he was always big on persistent determination, working your butt off, never being fast enough, you could always be faster.
Danica Patrick

"He was really hard on me, but he's not someone who was a pusher. He was a puller," Danica said. "He'd tell me that I could quit tomorrow, but if I wanted to do it, he was going to help me do it right. And he was always big on persistent determination, working your butt off, never being fast enough, you could always be faster."

Bobby Rahal understands the parlay between being the type of vociferous advocate required to shepherd a young driver to the major leagues of racing and being a "racetrack parent," mainly because he has lived both sides. The father of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal and team owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal signed Patrick in 2002 to join his open-wheel program and employed her through 2006, when she left for Andretti Autosport.

Rahal said T.J. earned his reputation as "very intense" but that he "never had a real issue with T.J., per se." T.J. was consistent in having his daughter's best interests as his focus, Rahal said.

"At times we had to sit T.J. down and talk to him. Racetrack parents are good and bad," he said. "For the sake of your child's relationship with that team, you really can't interfere, and I think he understood that at times and I think other times, with the emotion of it all, it was tough for him."

Emotion was occasionally an internal issue too. The similarities between T.J. and his oldest daughter -- that pugnaciousness chief among them -- have set the stage for what T.J. calls "our battles."

"We've had our head-butting," he said. "I think it was more or less her showing she could do it without me and stuff like that. You know how they get. You have to let them."

Learning process

T.J. and Bev Patrick were still running their four-employee glass business in Roscoe when their daughter's career and public profile went supernova in the 2005 Indianapolis 500. Fourth as a rookie, Danica had culminated a month of growing anticipation -- after qualifying fourth -- with what was then the highest finish by a female in open-wheel racing's greatest event.

Fame, opportunity and the demands commensurate with them were mounting, and her parents stepped in to help manage them in 2006 despite their lack of expertise. T.J. drove her coach and negotiated contracts -- including making the first contact with NASCAR teams in 2006, because "that's always where I thought she would end up." Bev handled her daily schedule and finances.

"We're not the smartest people in the world," he said. "We've had some success, but honestly, I don't trust a lot of people, and if we had hired an agency to take care of her, I think it would have been detrimental to her.

AP Photo/Tom Strickland

Danica's career skyrocketed when she finished fourth in the 2005 Indy 500 as a rookie, and her parents stepped in to help manage things. In 2009, she did one better, finishing third.

"These agents, they're good and bad. As long as you know going in they're all about themselves … I think it worked out well that we did help her because she was involved with it and knew everything that was going on."

By the time Danica was set to negotiate her second and ultimately final IndyCar contract with Andretti Autosport in 2009, she had decided to sign with marketing monolith IMG World. It was a decision with which she was comfortable. The conversation with her parents was not.

"As I look back on it, it was something I had to decide," Danica said. "They're not going to say, 'We're not helping you anymore,' so to have to do that, from my side, was very difficult. For them to hear it is difficult as well.

"So it definitely put a strain on the relationship. But I feel like we're better now than we've been for a long time. We're back to kind of having fun again, and we're able to talk about racing but a lot of other stuff too. I want to take their calls now, as opposed to the phone ringing and seeing their name and wondering, 'What do they want now?'"

Ultimately, T.J. said, he was relieved.

"It had gotten too big for us to begin with, and then it kept getting bigger and bigger," he said. "At first, it wasn't so bad. You just fish your way through it. I was relieved because worst thing you do as a parent is do something that isn't going to help your daughter, going to hurt them. And then you're really pissed at yourself. Of course they're going to forgive you, but in the back of their minds, you know they're going, 'What the hell were they thinking?'"

Next chapter

Maybe it's because the business relationship ceded to the personal. Maybe it's because Danica is still trying to show her father she can do it on her own. But, now 31, and albeit appreciative of all he has given her, the fully fledged race car driver says she's glad her father can be simply her oldest fan.

"It's time for him to become more of a cheerleader and a spectator and a supporter and a dad instead of playing the other role he did for go-karting and growing up," she said.

The Patricks have eased away in the past years, having moved to Indianapolis and semi-retired, although T.J., 53, owns a custom carbon fiber business. They are at their daughter's races less frequently, even taking an extended vacation abroad in the middle of last season.

They post YouTube videos of their visits to vintage snowmobile rallies in Montana -- with silly captions even -- perhaps reliving the memories of how they met on a blind date at a race where T.J. was racing and Bev was a mechanic for another driver. They, too, seem to enjoy this next phase.

But there might be some battles left yet. Her father still thinks he knows what's best for her, Danica said.

She'll have a tough time convincing him otherwise. She's knows what he's like. Just like her.

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