INDIANAPOLIS – Danica Patrick posed an initial question to the media Tuesday before fielding several after the first day of open practice had concluded for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“How do I look after a long day in the car?” she asked after sharing the track with 33 other drivers in her first official Indy 500 practice since 2011.
An Indianapolis Motor Speedway test two weeks ago helped prepare Patrick for the latter half of her “Danica Double” — she finished 35th in NASCAR’s Daytona 500 in February and intends to retire after the Verizon IndyCar Series’ marquee event on Sunday, May 27.
Patrick completed 91 laps and ranked 20th on the combined speed chart at 222.728 mph on Tuesday, but her No. 13 GoDaddy Chevrolet was quicker than that. She ranked eighth on the no-tow list (laps without the benefit of drafting off another car) at 220.233 mph.
Ice-breaker inquiry aside, Patrick left little question her intent to walk away after the race. She couldn’t respond quickly enough when asked about the possibility of reconsidering her decision if she ended up in victory lane.
“No, absolutely not,” she said. “That would be the perfect way to never come back. Don’t you think?”
Joined on the stage by the day’s fastest driver, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, Patrick turned to the Frenchman and asked him, “Don’t you think?” Pagenaud concurred.
“Yeah, then you could drop the mic,” he said.
“That’s right, just mic-drop that thing,” she said.
That said, Patrick admitted she never thought she would return to the Indy 500 after leaving for NASCAR. She decided in the fall that IMS was the perfect place to call it a career, considering her racing path soared after a fourth-place finish as a rookie in the 2005 Indy 500.
Although she became the first woman to win an Indy car race with a 2008 triumph in Japan, Patrick is known for her competitive Indy 500 runs. She’s finished in the top 10 in six of her seven starts, including a career-best third in 2009.
A lot has changed since she departed to race stock cars full time in 2012. Patrick, 36, admitted she still has so many miles to go to figure out the nuances to an Indy car that was redesigned in the offseason and given a new universal aero kit.
“I felt pretty good,” she said. “I’m still not completely confident in traffic. They’re trying to encourage me to use my tools and the bars (in the cockpit), the weight jacker and things. I’m like, ‘I need to feel the traffic first.’ Like before we create another variable as to what’s going on, I need to familiarize myself and get sharp again with the traffic and just the tendencies of the car.
“;I felt like it was a really solid day. I feel like the car has a lot of good natural speed in it. It was very smooth. We tried a handful of things and found some stuff that worked.”
Patrick suggested other drivers with more recent experience could provide better insight on how the cars were handling this day. One of them was her boss, two-time Indy 500 pole sitter Ed Carpenter, who had the fastest no-tow speed of 221.512 mph in the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.
Pagenaud turned his fastest lap of 225.787 mph in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet during an initial two-hour run between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET. In the later three-hour afternoon session, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was quickest at 224.665 mph in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet.
Practice continues each day through Friday with qualifying scheduled for Saturday and Sunday to secure the 33-car field.
“You need to get to the point where driving the car is very natural and instinctive on what's happening, be able to digest the other scenarios, the cars around you, the adjustments you're making, thinking ahead on the adjustments, timing passes,” Patrick said. “You need to create a lot of room for that kind of stuff out there as opposed to just driving the car. The race is very little of just driving the car and a lot of the other stuff.”
She approached the day with the mantra: “It’s about building confidence, not breaking confidence.” Mission accomplished for Day 1.
“We accomplished what we wanted to,” Patrick said. “We ran alone. We tried things. We got the car to turn a little better. We got in traffic for a few good laps, quite a few.”