On This Day: Danica Patrick Became the First Woman to Lead the Indy 500

Danica Patrick, the most successful woman racing driver in the history of American “open-wheel racing,” retired this Memorial Day weekend after running her last race on Sunday, participating in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana. Her career ended with a crash on the 68th lap of the 200-lap, 500-mile race.

Photo: Danica Patrick, 20 March 2017
Photo: Danica Patrick, 20 March 2017. Credit: Camping World 500 @ Phoenix International Raceway; Morrison_2001; Wikimedia Commons.

It was a disappointing end to an exciting racing career, but appropriate that it ended at the Indy 500 – for it was on this day at the Indy 500 in 2005 that Patrick rose to national prominence, finishing fourth.

Known for her determination and skill as well as her beauty, Patrick achieved many highlights and historic firsts in her career, including:

  • Only woman to win an IndyCar Series race (2008 Indy Japan 300)
  • Highest finish by a woman in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500
  • One of only 14 drivers to have led both races
  • 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year
  • 2005 IndyCar Series season Rookie of the Year
  • IndyCar Series Most Popular Driver 2005–2010
  • 2012 NASCAR Nationwide Series Most Popular Driver

On 29 May 2005, Patrick became the first woman to lead the Indy 500, racing ahead of the pack on several laps and very nearly winning the whole thing. Only 23 at the time, Patrick showed her legendary determination during the race. She suffered a setback when her car stalled in the pits, but she fought back to seventh position when suddenly disaster struck with only 45 laps to go, as she suffered a crash that damaged her car.

Refusing to give up, she limped into the pits where her crew frantically worked to repair her car. She then drove back onto the track and re-took the lead on lap 172 – only 28 laps left to go!

Eventual winner Dan Wheldon overtook her for the lead, but Patrick zoomed past him on lap 191 – only 9 laps left!

The huge crowd, more than a quarter-million racing fans, leaped to their feet and roared throughout the final, exciting laps. Patrick had to navigate those final laps with one eye on the other drivers and one eye on her fuel gauge, which was dipping to dangerously low levels. With no time left for one last pit stop to refuel, Patrick competed as best she could and finished fourth for the day. She lost the race, but gained lasting fame – and, thanks to her looks and abundant endorsements, fortune as well.

An article about Danica Patrick, Advocate newspaper article 30 May 2005
Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 30 May 2005, page 77
An article about Danica Patrick, Advocate newspaper article 30 May 2005
Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 30 May 2005, page 77

Here is a transcription of this article:

Patrick Not Only Hangs with Boys, but Nearly Beats Them

By Paul Newberry
AP Sportswriter

INDIANAPOLIS – Danica Patrick finished fourth in a thrilling conclusion to a dramatic race Sunday, the strongest showing for a woman in Indianapolis 500 history.

“I’m relieved,” she said. “I thought for a second we were going to win that thing at the end. When you’ve got to save fuel at the end, you’re not as quick.

“I stalled in the pits once and I spun it on the green flag once. I went straight to the back a couple of times. I’m so proud of the team.”

Patrick, who qualified fourth as the highest-starting female in the race’s history, became the first woman to lead a lap in the 89-year history of the race but her chances of winning were hurt by a couple of rookie mistakes.

Englishman Dan Wheldon took advantage, taking the checkered flag after a duel with Patrick that had fans at the Brickyard on their feel for several laps.

The first mistake came when the 23-year-old Patrick stalled her car in the pits, costing her precious time. Then, after working her way back up to seventh, she lost control with 45 laps to go while the yellow flag was out.

The cars were coming up to speed to take green when Patrick suddenly swerved left in front of Tomas Enge, shearing off her car’s nose cone and left wing. The crash knocked out Enge and sent Tomas Schecter spinning into the inside wall.

“I was beside Danica and she just spun into me,” Schecter said. “Luckily for her, someone was there to keep her from spinning. If I’m not there, she would have spun into the wall.”

Patrick dipped into the pits, managed to get [her] car repaired and got back on the track in 10th place, still on the lead lap.

“I’m sorry,” Patrick told her crew over the radio. “They were going so slow. I slowed down, but as soon as I went up high it just stuck.”

She pitted again two laps later to adjust the repairs and fill her tank, then re-took the lead on lap 172 as the leaders pitted.

Wheldon came on strong to overtake her again, but she passed him after a restart on lap 191 before she began slowing. She was running out of fuel.

Patrick, driving for the Rahal Letterman Racing team, started on the inside of the second row directly behind pole-winner Tony Kanaan.

She stayed among the leaders and was still running fourth when those ahead of her – Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Kanaan – came in for pit stops on the 56th lap.

That put Patrick in front briefly, but she came in for four tires and fuel the next time around and dropped back to fourth as she came onto the track.

The only woman to start from the pole in a major open wheel race was Sarah Fisher, who led the first 26 laps at Kentucky Speedway in 2002 and finished eighth.

In five races at Indianapolis, Fisher’s best start was ninth and her best finish was 21st.

The only other women at Indy were Janet Guthrie, whose best finish in three races was ninth in 1978, and Lyn St. James, whose best in seven races was 11th in 1992, when she was rookie of the year.

Patrick, who drove in the developmental Toyota Atlantic series for Rahal Letterman the past two years, moved up to the IndyCar series this season and went into Sunday’s race in 12th place in the points standings. At the series’ most recent race at Motegi, Japan, she started second, led 32 laps and finished fourth.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers – as well as more recent events.

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