A version of this interview appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 30 Heroes issue. Subscribe today!
After a 14-year driving career in which she competed in seven Indy 500s, finishing six times in the top 10, and became the first woman to win an IndyCar race in Japan in 2008, trailblazer Danica Patrick, 36, is moving on. On the heels of her retirement from racing and headed into her ESPYS hosting gig (another women's first), Patrick opens up about dropping out of high school, spiritual growth and being a unicorn.
AG: You've been prepping for The ESPYS. How's it going?
DP: It's been really good. Finalizing bits and getting some monologue ideas. I'm as comfortable as anyone could be who's not a comedian or an actor.
AG: So really, really comfortable.
DP: [laughs] Yeah. No, I think it's going to be really fun. It's all about attitude and the mindset of having a good time. I've gone to The ESPYS every year since 2005. I always come away going, "I suck. I can do better. I really want to accomplish something so I can feel justified in this room." ... What was your question again? I got a little off, picturing myself there.
AG: Are you enjoying retirement? It seems like you're open to change in a way a lot of people aren't.
DP: It's about perspective, seeing the good in transition and being open to it. I've been conditioned to change because it's been a big part of my life. Over time, I've just developed a more positive attitude toward it.
AG: Speaking of big changes, what were you thinking when you dropped out of high school to chase your driving dream?
DP: "Oh s---, this racing thing really has to work now." [laughs] From a young age, I had this far-out goal of what I wanted to accomplish. It was my beacon, a light in the distance that kept pulling me. It was never a question of what should I do? It was: This is what I'm going to do!
AG: When you were younger, did you have heroes you looked up to as models for the person you wanted to be?
DP: I never had someone I wanted to be like. I always wanted to be the first me. If you try to be like someone else, you're going to fail or limit yourself. Look, I have an ego, and I want to be known for being great, but I always tell anyone who says they want to grow up and be like me, "You should want to be better than me."
AG: What other advice do you have?
DP: That you should dream your biggest dream. It doesn't even need to feel realistic. And be yourself. I'm honest. With honesty, sometimes you offend somebody, sometimes it gets emotional, sometimes I'm crying, sometimes yelling, but it's real, and it's raw, and it's true. I don't ever feel like I have to put on a face because I've always just been me. I've always been fiery, I've always been emotional, I've always been determined, I've always been intense. So be you because people connect with that.
AG: You've spent your life ignoring limits, determining your own potential.
DP: I enjoy reaching beyond boundaries or the status quo. It makes life much more interesting. I always dream as big as humanly possible. Shoot for the stars, and you land on the moon. If you don't believe that you can do something great, then you're not going to.
AG: It seems like you're focusing much more on your spiritual development.
DP: Mmhmm. Creating an openness to change, evolving a "we're all one" kind of attitude, having more compassion and patience with people. I've started to understand that, for the most part, everybody is doing their best. And once you think about it like that, you know, you can't really fault them.
AG: Is that a mindset you had to grow into?
DP: Yeah. I would say that my openness has always been there, but my attitude has improved over time. It's hard to have a positive life with a negative attitude. Everybody has the ability to change and evolve. You're negative? You can grow out of that. You're angry or whatever? All these things you can grow out of. People ask me what it's like to be a woman in a man's world, and my response is that I'm not here playing the victim, I'm not here playing the "coulda, shoulda, woulda" game. I choose to recognize the positives that come from it: more attention, more interest and excitement. I enjoy being unique and different, it gives me an opportunity to stand out.
AG: Don't you have a mug that says "I am a f---ing unicorn" on it?
DP: Oh. Well, that's just in my personal life. [laughs] We all want to be unicorns. Stating the obvious, I'm a girl and a race car driver, or was -- that's weird to think about.
AG: Are you happier now?
DP: For sure. Absolutely.
AG: You met the Dalai Lama recently.
DP: [My boyfriend] Aaron [Rodgers] and I did. It was amazing. The Dalai Lama is a funny little guy. The first thing he did when he walked into the room is tug on our security guard's goatee. He told us we all have an equal opportunity to create change and be a positive influence on others.
AG: Is that your plan?
DP: Look, I'm 36, and I'm retired, so I have a lot of time. [laughs] I could do a cooking show, a workout program, a speaking tour that helps people all over the country. There are a lot of people that work, and there are very few that work really hard and even fewer that have a passion, which is where the magic happens. You can't leave your future up to someone else. You have to grab it with both hands and fight for what you want. I would never dismiss the racing that's happened. But I still want to accomplish great things. And wow, wouldn't it be amazing if I was known for something other than racing some day? That's the second part of the story.