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Indianapolis 500: How Danica Patrick changed racing

Tampa's Carlie Yent was at a racing banquet a few years ago when someone asked her to name the driver who influenced her the most.

The answer was easy and obvious: Danica Patrick.

"She was someone I could look up to," Yent said, "and she was the most iconic woman I knew in racing."

She still is. Although Patrick wasn't the first professional female driver, she's the only one to lead both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, and the only one to win an IndyCar Series race (Japan, 2008).

But those results don't adequately measure Patrick's career, which will end with her retirement after Sunday's Indy 500.

Her impact on auto racing transcends her accomplishments on the track. Patrick boosted ratings. She attracted new fans. And she inspired the next wave of female drivers, like Yent.

In a sport searching for stars, Patrick was the closest thing it had to a supernova.

RELATED: Danica Patrick has no regrets as racing career nears its end

"She wasn't just an athlete," said Joie Chitwood III, who witnessed her highs firsthand as the former president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway. "She had that star power, that celebrity feel."

That was obvious at Indy in 2005, when Patrick was a 23-year-old rookie with one of the fastest cars in the field. After she regained the lead on a restart with 10 laps to go, the crowd exploded.

"It felt like the grandstands were going to come down," said Chitwood, now the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the International Speedway Corporation. "I will never forget that electricity."

Low on fuel, Patrick faded to fourth, but it didn't matter. Danica Mania had arrived.

Patrick, not winner Dan Wheldon, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. She was Googled that May two and a half times more than Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jimmie Johnson have been in any month since 2004.

The race's 6.5 rating was its best since 1996.

Danica Patrick (left) chats with her team owners Kim Green (middle) and Michael Andretti (right) before the 2007 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | TIMES ]
Danica Patrick (left) chats with her team owners Kim Green (middle) and Michael Andretti (right) before the 2007 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“For IndyCar, she was big,” said Kim Green, a Grand Prix of St. Petersburg promoter who co-owned her IndyCar ride from 2007-09. “She pulled female interest, big time. She pulled kids of all ages, girls and boys.”

Many of them followed her to NASCAR.

When she won the pole at Daytona to start her first full Cup season in 2013, viewership spiked to 16.7 million viewers. The race hasn't topped 13.4 million since, according to Sports Media Watch.

Patrick never matched the success she had in IndyCar. Her replacement at Stewart-Haas Racing, Tampa's Aric Almirola, has almost as many top-10 finishes through 12 races (five) as Patrick had in five full-time seasons (seven).

That didn't matter, either. Patrick still became one of NASCAR's most popular drivers.

"She's brought eyes to the sport that, a lot of us feel, would have never tuned in or ever come to a race otherwise," said Almirola, a Hillsborough High alumnus. "The demographic that she reaches is far different than what a Dale (Earnhardt) Jr.'s going to reach."

RELATED: Tampa's Aric Almirola on new NASCAR ride: 'Let's go have fun'

Danica Patrick (seen here before the 2017 Daytona 500) couldn't replicate her IndyCar success in NASCAR but still became one of the series' most popular drivers. [ TIMES FILE ]
Danica Patrick (seen here before the 2017 Daytona 500) couldn’t replicate her IndyCar success in NASCAR but still became one of the series’ most popular drivers. [ TIMES FILE ]
That demographic is hard to quantify, but the messages on her garage window before February’s Daytona 500 gave some insight, often in purple ink and with i’s dotted by hearts.

Girl Power Danica <3

U made a Difference

Thank you for empowering women everywhere!

There's some anecdotal data to suggest that the empowerment spread from the grandstands to the track, at least at the grassroots level.

World Karting Association president Kevin Williams said the number of girls in his events increased more than 800 percent. That sounds like a lot, but that often means going from one girl to nine. Larger events with 400 participants might draw 40 girls.

"That wasn't the case before," Williams said. "A lot of that is driven because of Danica."

But Patrick hasn't yet caused a surge of female drivers at the top of the sport.

With Patrick retiring, neither IndyCar nor NASCAR has a full-time female driver in their top series. IndyCar has only two women in its three feeder series, and NASCAR has none in its Xfinity Series.

Tampa's Yent is trying to become the first female driver in five years to qualify for the Little 500, a prestigious sprint car race held Saturday near Indianapolis.

Even if Patrick hasn't yet caused an explosion of professional female drivers, she has made a noticeable impact on the next generation.

"I admire her for everything that she did – how she drives, how she handles her composure," said Megan Rae Meyer, a 21-year-old Tampa native who races dirt late models. "I think she keeps it together pretty well for everything that she goes through."

How Patrick handled everything on and off the track helped shift the perception of women in the sport.

When Yent wanted to try racing as a child, someone warned her dad not to spend too much money on equipment; girls usually quit after a few months.

A dozen seasons later, the 20-year-old Chamberlain High alumna drives in the Southern Sprint Car Shootout Series while balancing a course load as a full-time student at the University of Florida.

No one questions whether she belongs.

"It's not just a male sport anymore," Yent said. "There's so many girls in racing."

They're not in the top ranks yet.

But they're on their way, following the path Danica Patrick blazed.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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