Curiosity was piqued when 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal announced in May 2004 that Danica Patrick would drive one of his Rahal Letterman Racing cars in the 2005 edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
But no one that day in 2004 had any idea of the earthquake that would strike the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the following May. Danicamania was a phenomenon like few others in the century-plus history of the Indianapolis 500.
Patrick showed her driving talent and quick comfort level at IMS by qualifying a stunning fourth on Pole Day. She immediately was transformed from a source of intense interest for race fans and motorsports media to a global obsession.
Danica drove to the front of the field for one lap, on Lap 56, becoming the first woman to lead a lap in the race’s history. But it still seemed hard to imagine at that early point of the race that she could contend for victory, especially since she led that lap due to pit stop sequences.
Patrick’s race nearly ended on Lap 155 when she did a half-spin on a restart while running eighth, clipping the car of Tomas Enge. The nosecone on her car was damaged, and she quickly dove into the pits for repairs. She pitted again on Lap 159 for fuel and tires.
Then the surreal became very real when Patrick and Bryan Herta, on different pit strategies than the rest of the field, stayed on track when the other leaders pitted during a caution with 30 laps to go.
Danica took the lead on Lap 172 and stayed there until Lap 185, when Dan Wheldon passed her. On a restart on Lap 190, Patrick passed Wheldon for the lead in Turn 1, bringing the huge crowd to its feet in a roaring crescendo.
Wheldon chased down Patrick and passed her on Lap 194, winning the race. Danica held on to fourth place for the best finish in the race’s history by a woman to that point, and her worldwide popularity and recognition launched into orbit. She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week and was the talk of the town in large cities and small villages across America and many parts of the world.
A star was born.