If you don’t follow Indy racing, it might come as a surprise to learn that Danica Patrick is a professional race car driver. No, seriously. She does it for a living. And apparently she’s pretty good—back in 2008, she was the first woman ever to win an IndyCar race, and the fourth to race in the Indianapolis 500. But who could blame us for not knowing that? Every time we see the name Danica Patrick, it’s usually accompanied by a photo of her in a bikini. If the Internet is to be believed (and let’s assume for a moment that it is), she spends the majority of her time leaning and/or crawling across automobile hoods, looking up with a surprised yet delighted expression that announces, “Oh my goodness, you just caught me giving my car a boob shine.” And then there are those GoDaddy.com commercials, like her latest spots premiering during the Super Bowl, in which she reenacts the dirty bits from Flashdance and The Seven Year Itch.
Patrick—the racecar driver, not the bikini model—has a pretty big weekend coming up. She makes her stock car debut tomorrow in Daytona, which will be broadcast live on the SPEED network at four p.m. Eastern Time. There’s already been plenty of speculation about whether she can hold her own in the NASCAR big leagues. On the one hand, it’s hard not to root for her, if only because she’s one of the few women in a sport dominated by dudes with unironic mustaches. But on the other hand, if she wants to be taken seriously as a NASCAR competitor, she might want to consider putting on some pants. Sure, Patrick is easier on the eyes than most NASCAR drivers, but Dale Earnhardt never posed for photos in a banana hammock.
When I called her for our interview, Patrick was at a racetrack, and as if our conversation needed even more contextual perfection, she was sitting inside a car. “It’s the quietest place I could find,” she explained. “Sometimes you just can’t get away from that 700 horsepower noise.” I laughed along with her, like escaping the white noise of roaring engines was something I could totally relate to.
Danica Patrick: (Laughs.) Well, I don’t know. I never saw those cartoons, so I have no idea. I think they were before my time. But I know it’s going to be a lot different than IndyCar. The racing is so much closer and tighter in NASCAR. An Indy car has wings, so it’s impossible to get as close as you can with a stock car. In a stock car, you can be virtually nose to tail all the way around the track.
Which just makes it easier to slip a stick of dynamite into your competitor’s tailpipe, right?
(Laughs.) I guess so, sure. It’s going to be challenging. It’s something new for me. I’m excited though. I think it’ll be fun.
NASCAR’s fan base is mostly the Bible Belt and rural America. Do you have what it takes to seduce a demographic that loves warm Schlitz and thinks Obama is a Muslim socialist?
It’s been something of a culture shock for me. Just the other day, we were taking a break for lunch and a bunch of guys were picking up food at Wendy’s and they asked me if I wanted anything. And I was like, “I have no idea. I’ve never eaten at Wendy’s in my life. I don’t even know what’s on their menu.” I’d had a sip of Mountain Dew earlier that day, so I already felt like I’d overdone the junk food. I’m a water and salad kinda girl, not a Wendy’s and soda girl. I don’t want to insult anybody, but I feel like I’m really out of my element.
You’re not tempted to make a few personality tweaks to win over the NASCAR faithful? Some pork rinds and chewing tobacco could make a big difference.
I just can’t do it. Throughout my career, I’ve been very, very honest about who I am as a person. If I’m mad, you’re gonna know it. If I’m happy, you’re gonna know it. If I want to wear a swimsuit for a magazine photo shoot, I’m gonna do it. I don’t care what people think. And I’m not changing at all. I don’t know how to be anybody else but myself. Take me for what I am.
I read somewhere that you idolized Mr. T as a kid. Did you share his enthusiasm for pitying the fools?
I might share his enthusiasm for jewelry, but I’m not really about (in a high-pitched Mr. T impression) “I pity the fool!” (Laughs.) Actually, I guess when I think about it, maybe I do occasionally pity the fools.
Would you say that again?
What? “I pity the fool!”
Sweet Christ that’s adorable. You sound like Mr. T on helium.
When I was growing up, every Saturday morning my dad used to wrestle with me and my sister Brooke, and I’d flex my muscles, like I was trying to intimidate him, and scream “I’m Mr. T!” (Laughs.) It was pretty awesome.
Speaking of Mr. T, have you noticed that professional athletes don’t have their own cartoons anymore? Back in the 70s and 80s, there were cartoons starring the Harlem Globetrotters and Hulk Hogan and even Muhammad Ali. What happened?
I honestly don’t know. I’d love to have my own cartoon.
Would you really? What would an animated Danica Patrick look like?
I’d definitely want to be super pretty, because that’s something you can do with a cartoon. I’d have long dark hair, and maybe I’d change my eye color to blue. I’m not sure. I think it’d be really cool if she had a split personality.
Like a schizophrenic?
(Laughs.) No, no, no. Like a superhero thing. By day I’d be really feminine. I’d dress up and be totally normal and do girly things. And then at night I’d be this hero that saves the day and races cars.
Why the secret identity? Can’t you be both a girly girl and a race car driver/crime fighter?
I don’t think so. My personality on the track is very serious. I don’t joke around. Actually, that’s becoming less true as I get more comfortable. But when I’m away from the track, I’m much more feminine and playful. I don’t really take things too seriously. Between my racing personality and the person I am in private, I’m two very different people.
Will your cartoon have an arch-nemesis?
I guess there’d have to be, wouldn’t there? It’d be better if there was a new villain in every episode, like they did with Scooby-Doo. That would change it up. That way if you don’t like the villain in a particular episode, you could just tune in next week.
I would personally love to see you rip the mask off a monster and discover a scowling Richard Petty.
Yeah, yeah, maybe. (Laughs.) “If it wasn’t for you meddling… Danica!”
“I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for your love of driving cars at reckless and irresponsible speeds!”
“If it wasn’t for your amazing driving, you never would have caught me!”
I feel like you need a catch phrase. Anything come to mind?
(Long pause.) Maybe something like “You know you can’t outrun me.”
That’s not bad.
When criminals get too cocky, I’ll just be like, “You know you can’t outrun me.” (Laughs.) And then I’ll chase ‘em down. That’s how every episode ends.
Your catch phrase is gonna be so much bigger than “I pity the fool!”
Yeah, right? And it’s a positive message. It’s very confidence building. “You know you can’t outrun me!” You just have to believe it.
Former Indy driver Robby Gordon accused you of having an unfair advantage because you weigh only 100 pounds. Does that make any sense at all?
(Laughs.) I don’t think so. If weight was a factor, I’m sure there would’ve been a rule in place long before now. I would’ve won every race I’ve ever been in.
If it’s true, why aren’t there more midget drivers?
Yeah, like jockeys! Every jockey weighs like 120 pounds or something, right? If weight really made a difference, everybody in racing would be tiny. But y’know, there are also some drawbacks to being my size. I’ll never have the leverage of a six-foot driver. I have to work harder physically to be in control of a car. So for every up there’s also a down.
Some guys just aren’t comfortable with a woman being successful in what’s historically been a male-dominated sport. Are you part of a conspiracy to emasculate male racing fans?
(Laughs.) Trust me, I’m really not. I think that barrier between men and women is starting to blur a lot more these days, and not just in racing. We had a woman run for president. Our culture is slowly starting to get more comfortable with the idea of it. We’re opening ourselves up mentally to the idea of gender barriers being crossed. I’m not the only one doing it, but I’m happy to be a part of that change.
If I could play devil’s advocate for a minute, where does it end? What’s next, drinking too much scotch and watching Scarface at 3am? Are ladies going to steal everything that guys are good at?
(Laughs.) You can keep Scarface.
You were in a GoDaddy commercial not long ago where you get pulled over by a lady cop who turns out to be a stripper. Was that based on a real experience?
No, no, no! She wasn’t a stripper!
She wanted to be a GoDaddy girl. She was trying to prove to me that she had what it takes. GoDaddy girls are known to be beautiful, sexy women…
… who take off their clothes for strangers on desert highways?
She was auditioning!
Okay, okay, I hear you. Is that a typical experience for you? When you get pulled over by the cops, do they try to show you their sexy potential?
They’re usually guys, and they tell me things like “I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. You’re getting a ticket.” Unfortunately, I deal with very difficult cops where I live, so I don’t particularly like them. I like the cops who are like, “Oh my god, you’re Danica Patrick! Cool! Can I have an autograph! Okay, bye!”
I don’t know where you live, but obviously your police force doesn’t understand that famous people don’t have to follow the same laws that commoners do.
Somebody once told me that I should just whip out my racing license the next time I’m pulled over. I think that’s a brilliant idea. I could show it to them and say, “Do you have one of these? I’m far more qualified than you are to do these things on the road.”
Do you have any tricks for getting out of a speeding ticket? I mean, besides wearing a bikini.
(Laughs.) Well, that’s a pretty good one. I have unfortunately taken the advice of the cops I’ve met over the last couple of years. They’ve told me, “When you get pulled over, just be honest.” So that’s what I’ve tried to do. They ask me, “Why do you think I pulled you over?” And I say, “Well, obviously because I was speeding.” And they give me a ticket anyway!
Seriously? They gave you a ticket for something you admitted to doing? Fuckers!
So now I’m like (in a little girl’s voice), “I have no idea why you pulled me over. What was I doing?” (Laughs.) Works like a charm.
Is racing a lifestyle choice? Do you like doing everything fast?
I’m just competitive in general. Whether it’s getting off the line fast in a road car or working out harder than somebody else at the gym or beating somebody at cards, I just like to win. I don’t know if it necessarily has anything to do with speed as much as just a desire to be better than anybody else. That’s my internal drive.
What about something like competitive eating? Sonya Thomas has the record for eating 37 hot dogs in 12 minutes. How many hot dogs could you eat in 12 minutes?
I can’t even remember the last hot dog I ate. I don’t think I’d do very well in an eating competition, especially because I do all those photo shoots in swimsuits. I don’t know how Sonya stays so small and eats that many hot dogs.
I heard she’s only 98 pounds.
Oh my god! That is insane! I couldn’t do what she does. I’d be too worried about calories. The math wouldn’t make sense in my head. I have no doubt that, regardless of gender or anything else, she’d definitely beat me. I would probably eat four hot dogs and be done. But…. (long pause) I don’t know.
You don’t want to admit defeat, do you?
(Laughs.) I know I’d get to hot dog number two and be like, “Dude, this is like 150 calories! I can’t eat this!” But still… (laughs) it’s stupid, I know.
Do you have any kooky pre-race rituals? Do you watch Heart Like a Wheel over and over again while chugging Red Bulls?
(Laughs.) We call Red Bull “under-steer in a can” because you drink a Red Bull and you have so much energy that you never lift going into a corner, so you just turn in but it doesn’t turn and you go straight off.
That’s exactly why I don’t drink Red Bull.
I try to stay away from rituals. I don’t like superstitions, because it gets to a certain point where your life is kinda ruled by those crazy little rules in your head. They’re only real if you believe in them, so I choose not to believe in them.
Shirley Muldowney, the first lady of drag racing, was given the nickname “Cha-Cha-Cha.” Do you have a condescending nickname yet?
No, I don’t think so. When I was in high school, I wore go-karting t-shirts with the initials “D.P.” written on them, so some of my friends started calling me D.P.
That’s pretty cool. DP could mean anything.
(Laughs.) Yeah. That’s what I liked about it.
It could mean Dom Pérignon, Diet Pepsi, director of photography, donkey punch…
Never mind. Do people still call you D.P.?
(Driver) Bobby Rahal decided to drop the P and just call me D. So now people call me D or D.P., and my sister calls me Deep, and I call her Beep because her initials are B.P. We’re Deep and Beep.
Do you have any predictions for tomorrow’s race? Are you prepared to destroy the competition?
Well, obviously my intention is to try and win. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of guys who’ve done this race a bunch of times already. So it’s going to be tough. Being that this is my first NASCAR race, it’d be a pretty amazing day if I won. But I’m not expecting it to happen. If I can even get close, I’ll be happy.
If somehow, inexplicably, you do win tomorrow, promise us that you’ll moon the other racers and scream, “Suck it, losers!”
(Laughs.) I think it’d be really funny if I started winning all the time and became really annoyingly girly and put on lipstick before every race and started wearing heels and stuff like that. I probably can’t back any of this up, because I’d feel really uncomfortable and self-conscious and I’d never follow through. But it’s a funny idea.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com