Once the “Darling of the Indianapolis 500” Danica Patrick’s comments after her qualifying attempt on Saturday has made her the “target of discontent” from many of the fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
She was booed by the fans following her slow four-lap qualification average of 224.217 miles per hour on Pole Day. That ultimately left her 23rd out of the 24 cars during the first round of qualifications.
Patrick wasn’t booed because she was so slow — she was booed because she wouldn’t take any responsibility for the car’s performance.
Instead, she blamed the team and that is what angered the 40,000 or so fans that came out on Pole Day when they heard her comments over the public address system.
“I think it was absolutely awful,” Patrick said. “I wasn’t flat the last two laps and I was scared to death flat the first two. And it didn’t get any better.
“I’ve never been bad here before. I’ve never been outside the top 10 on a finish or qualifying so, um, it’s not my fault. This car is not good.”
When the fans showered her with a loud chorus of boos, a startled Patrick turned to her public relations representative and asked, “Why are they booing?”
By then the damage had been done and Patrick is experiencing life under the microscope at the Indy 500. She has been there before but for much more positive circumstances.
Like her rookie season in 2005 when she became the first female driver ever to lead laps in the world’s most famous race. She was in the lead with seven laps to go before she was passed by eventual winner Dan Wheldon. Patrick finished fourth.
That was the start of “Danica Mania” as Patrick became a mainstream cultural phenomenon.
She finished eighth at Indy in 2006 and 2007, but many believed she drove better races in both of those years than her fourth-place finish as a rookie in 2005.
Her star power increased dramatically on April 20, 2008, when she became the first female ever to win a race in a major, closed-course racing series when she drove to victory at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.
But Patrick rebounded in 2009 with her best IndyCar season, finishing third in the Indy 500 — the best ever for a female — and finishing fifth in the IndyCar Series standings.
By then, the Patrick saga saw her branch out into NASCAR when she signed a limited race schedule to compete in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with JR Motorsports. This was after she resigned a two-year contract extension with an option year at Andretti Autosport.
This was going to be the year that Patrick made it big in two different forms of auto racing. Her brand awareness would increase dramatically, especially if she proved to be competitive in NASCAR and stayed out front in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
So far in 2010 she’s done neither.
She’s crashed out of two of her three Nationwide events and finished 31st in the one race she finished at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Patrick knew it would be a tough transition to adapt to NASCAR, but always had the faith that when she returned to the Andretti Autosport IndyCar that she would return to the front of the field.
That hasn’t happened.
Her best finish in five IndyCar races this season was seventh.
The Indy 500 was the race that Patrick had hoped to get her back on target. Instead, she has missed the mark and will start the biggest race of the year way back in 23rd place.
“I have been in the back of the field at some points during this race, the first race in particular where I went toward the front, and I started up front. Then I stalled it,” Patrick recalled. “It’s a lot of buffeting; it’s a lot of moving around. A lot of thinking, ‘Is this thing broken right now? Because it doesn’t feel right.’ But at least I have that experience if for some reason we decide that we’re just not going to go out again.
“The car deserves to be higher up than this. It’s better than this. It’s just not set up right.”
She made a step toward that on Sunday with an apology.
“I was a little emotional yesterday,” Patrick said. “I was still shaking when I did the interview because we were on a very, very ragged edge out there.”
What Patrick finds most difficult is the reaction of the fans. When those cheers turned to boos, she was disheartened.