When a 23-year-old rookie named Danica Patrick became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 three years ago, she raised the tantalizing possibility that in a male-dominated American sport, a woman might for the first time stand in victory lane.
Patrick eventually finished fourth in that race, but she quickly became a phenomenon. Companies embraced her willingness to market her good looks, and babies began emerging from maternity wards with the name Danica. But along with her celebrity came a question: When would she win?
It was answered Sunday in Motegi, Japan, where Patrick, now 26, became the first woman to win an Indy car race. She defeated the two-time Indy 500 winner Hélio Castroneves by nearly six seconds in the Indy Japan 300.
“I feel way too young to be giving life advice, but this is a great platform to have,” Patrick said Sunday night in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she had landed after a virtually sleepless flight from Japan. “This reaches outside racing. This is about finding something you love to do, and following through with it.”
Besides saying thanks, Patrick said she was unable to say much more to her crew amid her tears immediately after the race. Back in Los Angeles, she again became emotional when she relived her long road to victory.
“It’s going to be nice not to have to answer those questions anymore,” she said. “They were just so hard to answer, because I believed in myself. I just didn’t know when it was going to happen.”
There was a time when Patrick could not have competed in Sunday’s race. A few years before Janet Guthrie, an aerospace engineer and road racer, became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1977, women were not allowed in the press box, the garage area or the pits.
As Guthrie wrote in “Life at Full Throttle,” an account of her career in racing, women were dismissed as lacking the strength, endurance and emotional stability to compete against men. Even a driver with Guthrie’s credentials as a road racer was seen as dangerous.
“A woman might be a reporter, a photographer, a timer/scorer, she might own the race car — but she couldn’t get near it at any time for any reason,” Guthrie wrote. “A woman on the track itself was unthinkable.”
On Sunday, Guthrie showed little surprise at Patrick’s victory.
“Anybody who didn’t think she had a chance of winning just hasn’t been paying attention,” Guthrie, 70, said in a telephone interview from her home in Aspen, Colo. “She’s been in the hunt for a long time. It was just a matter of time, as far as I’m concerned.”
Guthrie then said, “I absolutely hope this will put all of the naysayers to rest.”
For Patrick, the naysayers’ chorus had grown increasingly loud as her winless streak wore on. A year ago, in search of a stronger team, Patrick jumped from the IndyCar Series team co-owned by the talk-show host David Letterman to the team co-owned by Michael Andretti, the former racer who is the son of Mario Andretti.
Michael Andretti said he believed the diminutive Patrick, 5 feet 2 inches and 100 pounds, had the skill and desire to win regularly. He provided her with a powerful race car and with his team’s expertise, which helped her win the race Sunday at Twin Ring Motegi, a mile-and-a-half oval.
When Patrick burst on the racing consciousness three years ago, she brought with her an extensive racing background. Her father was a racer who introduced his daughter to driving at a young age. At 16, Patrick moved to Europe, alone, to compete.
By 2005, the combination of her promise on the track and her willingness to capitalize on her looks — her biography in the 2008 IndyCar Series media guide includes a photograph of her in a white bikini — soon had marketers clamoring for her.
An IndyCar Series official said in 2006 that Patrick’s merchandise outsold that of any other driver, 10 to 1. The series said that the name Danica jumped to No. 352 from No. 610 on the list of most popular baby names from 2005 to 2006. Patrick was in a Super Bowl advertisement this year for Godaddy.com. Expectations became heavy.