Danica Patrick

COLUMBUS, Ohio — They came to contribute to a worthy cause and honor a racing pioneer, but a record sellout crowd of more than 600 was treated to a Thursday night testimonial about the special bond between Bobby Rahal and Danica Patrick.

Their friendship began in Europe at a TGI Friday’s. “Bob,” as Patrick calls him today, was a curious racing team co-owner keeping an eye on an up-and-coming talent. “D,” as Rahal refers to her, was just looking to move up the racing ladder as quickly as possible.

Sixteen years later, they reminisced about how they came together. They laughed repeatedly about the good times at Rahal Letterman Racing, especially when Patrick became an overnight sensation after becoming the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 in 2005. He gave her that first shot as a professional. Now a household name in retiring from racing at 36, Patrick won’t forget Rahal for taking that chance on a feisty, female racer.

“I would not be here today were it not for you,” Patrick said told Rahal as she was honored at the seventh annual Safelite Autoglass Rally for the Ranch at the Hollywood Casino.

Bobby Rahal and Danica PatrickRahal, looking like a proud father, wore a Patrick button with her picture in an RLL racing firesuit.

“She obviously blazed a trail in Indy car racing, for sure, and made her own history,” Rahal said. “For me, it’s a little bit like her coming home. Her career started here in 2002. We’re back together again.”

Patrick lived for two years in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Rahal’s old stomping grounds, when she was starting out.

Patrick would accomplish so many firsts. In addition to leading that Indy 500 and finishing fourth as a rookie, she’s the only woman to win a major open-wheel race as she celebrated at Motegi, Japan, in 2008. She’s also the first woman to lead NASCAR’s Daytona 500.

But for her, the best time was 13 years ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My favorite memory always is my first Indy 500 with you, Bob,” she said. “It was such a neat month, such a dramatic month. ‘Danica Mania’ was born. That was just really fun.”

“Danica Mania” lives on. Her widespread appeal in building a marketable brand was evident once again at this event.

The record crowd raised an all-time high $450,000 for The Bobby Rahal Foundation to assist the Buckeye Ranch, which helped more than 5,000 children and families with mental, behavioral and substance abuse issues last year. The foundation had raised more than $2.1 million in the previous six years for the cause, which has seven locations around the state and is based in nearby Grove City.

Rahal’s son, Graham, has always admired Patrick for her racing ability and constructing an impressive profile. And that’s saying something when considering Graham Rahal is one of the series’ most marketable drivers as a six-time winner and 29-year-old son of the 1986 Indy 500 winner.

“Danica has helped change the shape of the sport,” Graham said. “She was one of the first females to truly have success, be able to run up front and also get to a mainstream position. Female or not, she’s done a great job building her brand and being in that position.

“It’s probably going to be a long time, maybe never, that we see a woman have that kind of impact again.”

This night, Patrick joined previously honored racing legends Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser Jr., Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan. Considering what she’ll miss most about racing — the ability to inspire others to believe anything is possible — she was appreciative of the role she played in raising so much money for the cause.

Her life outside a race car is full of reflection and big-picture perspective. Not that she’s slowing down too much.

“I feel like I’ve just entered this really interesting, cool, flattering phase of my life,” she said. “Last week, I hosted the ESPYS. The next day, I got the Legends award at the Kids Sports Choice Awards. Now, here I am getting an award tonight alongside so many drivers who have been extremely successful. A lot has happened in eight days.”

She reiterated that May’s Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, her first Indy car drive in seven years, was her swan song. Since she finished 30th, many have wondered if she would reconsider and return.

“Hell no, I’m good!” she said.

Immediate plans revolved around making some NFL road trips to see boyfriend Aaron Rodgers, quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.

“This is my walk-off,” she said. “I’m feeling good. I’m enjoying every bit of it. I guess, for me, I will be off to Green Bay to see a lot of football.”

See what else Rahal and Patrick had to say here:

Bobby Rahal, Danica Patrick, and Brian Till