Danica Patrick got tough in England

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Danica Patrick encountered a different mentality during her years in England. The European developmental series didn’t cotton to Americans, let alone women.

Bev Patrick wept at O'Hare, sobbed during the hours-long phone calls. She bawled so hard at Heathrow that passersby stopped to ask if she was all right. The next step in this family hobby-turned-career ambition was a broad one, all the way across the sea.

Her 16-year-old daughter, Danica, was an aspiring professional race car driver who had expended her go-karting options in the United States and was embarking on the next progression in the diabolically competitive British formula system.

This was going to be rough for everyone.

Danica Patrick admittedly was "almost too young and naïve" to realize it. Maybe that was for the better. She was just eager to confront what was next after an ultra-successful karting career. The couch in a Milton Keynes living room she was renting even sounded inviting.

"I was excited. I got to leave high school. I got to leave at 16 and go live in another country away from my family and I could do whatever I wanted, and at that age that's the most exciting thing in the world," she said.

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Danica Patrick came back from England better prepared to handle the fame that engulfed her after her fourth-place finish as a rookie in the 2005 Indy 500.

"I think for my family it was really hard. I think they've always felt I could take care of myself, but you can never control the sort of things that happen out of nowhere. More than anything they were more concerned I was happy and being treated right and having a chance to be successful on the track."

What Patrick experienced in England was one of the most formative periods of her fledgling career, lasting until she was 19. It was arguably less laden with lessons in racing than in persistence, scrutiny and developing calluses.

In some ways, she didn't come back a better driver, but she came back different. She came back, as her mother pensively describes it, with a "hard shell."

"She wasn't a soft person after that," concurred her father, T.J. "She was kind of jaded. She had a thicker skin."

But she came back better prepared for nearly three years of semi-employment that followed her race studies abroad, and for the detonation of wealth and fame and notoriety that followed her breakthrough fourth-place finish as a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500.

She came back ready to become the Danica Patrick who was determined enough to switch careers when she could have ridden out several more years as the most popular driver in IndyCar, and confident enough to handle the scrutiny and pressure when her stock car career began with the expected travail.

A rough welcome in Europe

The nature of European developmental series can be provincial, cliquish. On the circuits of Truxton, Croft, Knockhill and Brands Hatch, Patrick was an outsider in two critical regards. "They don't like Americans, let alone women," T.J. Patrick said.

My experience over there was they just weren’t as far along receiving something new and different from a gender-barrier perspective. And there were a lot of European drivers, so that made it tough. That made it tough when your team owner doesn’t even think that you should be the fastest.
Danica Patrick

"My experience over there was they just weren't as far along receiving something new and different from a gender-barrier perspective," Danica said. "And there were a lot of European drivers, so that made it tough. That made it tough when your team owner doesn't even think that you should be the fastest."

Patrick Long, an American who competed against Patrick in karts and in the British formula series, conceded that "[Americans] haven't always done ourselves favors on the stereotypes" and said Europeans had low expectations of them as open-wheel drivers.

"I certainly think if a team sees there's a young Yank that wants to sign up,'' he said, "they're not chomping at the bit like they might be about a Brazilian or someone from France, where single-seater is a little bit more of a way of life."

Patrick came to England in 1998 funded by John Mecom Jr., a whimsical Houston oilman and original owner of the New Orleans Saints. He had been introduced to the Patricks by Lyn St. James two years earlier in his Turn 2 suite during the Indianapolis 500. It was a landmark moment for Patrick's career as her family -- then running a commercial glass business and a coffee shop -- labored financially to fund her racing endeavors in ever-expensive equipment farther from home.

"We spent everything we had," her father, T.J., said.

Patrick had unsuccessfully lobbied her parents to allow her to move to California to race karts at age 14, but Mecom -- with help from family friend and Formula One legend Jackie Stewart -- had a plan. He envisioned Europe, in a competitive environment that was in the process of steeling future F1 champion Jenson Button and future two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.

Mecom funded Patrick's first foray in British Formula Vauxhall in 1998 and Formula Ford in 1999.

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Like Danica Patrick, future F1 champion Jenson Button, right, cut his teeth in the competitive European developmental system.

Patrick finished ninth in the Vauxhall summer series before advancing to Formula Ford. In 2000 she finished second at the prestigious Formula Ford Festival, matching the best result by an American in the event since Danny Sullivan in 1972.

She finished 19th in points that season competing against future F1 driver Anthony Davidson -- her teammate -- and sports car driver Long and Marino Franchitti. She was 25th her final season in 2001 as her Haywood Racing team and others in the series struggled with an uncompetitive Mygale car.

Fun off the track, but not on

"There was a core group of us, including Danica, Pat Long, James Courtney and others, who spent a lot of time together," said Franchitti, who is Scottish. "We were all very competitive, of course, and battled hard on track but had a lot of fun hanging out off the track. We were young and living away from home, so it was a bit of a support group, too. We had no money, but we made the most of what we had, and I have fond memories of that time."

Long agreed, saying the experience was "tough for a lot of reasons."

"There's a lot going on in your head at that age, when you're going from under your parents' wings to stepping out and becoming self-aware and self-sufficient," he said. "For none of us was it, 'This is a great life experience and maybe this will work out.' This was first and foremost a job."

But Mecom withdrew his financial support after the first season, reportedly because he had been told Patrick was acting like an unattended teenager in a foreign country. T.J. Patrick heard the stories, too.

"I had flown over there a couple times with people saying that," he said. "Did she have fun and party? Yeah, I'm sure she did. Everybody looks for an issue to get out of something. … That's why they didn't sponsor her the last three years. So we did it ourselves. I'm sure she did some partying, but you still had to make the races."

T.J. said if he had the decision to reconsider, he still would send his daughter to England but with an overseer, not so much for her but for her race teams.

"Everyone says I'm crazy, but it was the only decision," he said. "There was open-wheel racing that she could do at 16. We had done everything that we could do in the States in go-karts. Then there was nothing to do here until she was 18. So it was an easy decision.

"We probably did it wrong, in all honesty. … Somebody should have been with her, as far as keeping track of what she was doing, because they more or less s--- on her and took our money."

Feeling ignored by her team

T.J.'s assessment was hardened by his vociferous support of his daughter, but executives at Ford Racing, which had taken an interest in Patrick and would eventually become a benefactor, had expressed some of the same sentiments in published reports. With all of a team's three or four race cars being outfitted specifically to suit the most experienced or successful driver, Patrick was often left with cars that either did not fit her style or were constructed without the benefit of the best equipment or personnel.

In the 2000 Formula Ford Festival, Patrick used a car driven the rest of the season by Davidson -- he finished third in points -- because Haywood Racing hoped to sign her for the following season, T.J. claims.

"I think they just didn't listen to me," Danica said. "I think they just put a car together and I don't necessarily think they purposely tried to do a bad job or anything, but it wasn't like I was getting the new stuff or a part that was improved, and they surely weren't listening to me when it came to the handling of the car.

"Forever, when I lived in England, I thought I was maybe too scared. I thought that because the fast corners were something I just didn't do well at. I thought maybe I am just not cut out for this."

Patrick said she didn't learn otherwise until she was back in the United States and working for Champ Car owner Bobby Rahal, a former Indianapolis 500 winner who provided the break that led to her entry into the IndyCar Series in 2005.

"Bobby Rahal was the one who first taught me about cars and how to drive and what the changes did, and I started to understand what roll bars did and things like that," she said. "I spent three years over there not learning any of this. They didn't change any of that stuff for me.

"I came home and I started learning about cars and I realized fast corners are where I shined, oddly enough. It was a funny little revelation."

One of many brought on by her time in England.

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