Commentary

Like Self, Patrick didn't need victory to be a winner

Updated: April 24, 2008, 2:51 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

Danica Patrick's next race is the IndyCar 300 at Kansas Speedway. Bill Self has been there a few times. He has even worn a racing jumpsuit there.

Self and Patrick have never met, but it turns out they're connected by something the Kansas coach said about three weeks ago, the day before his life changed.

He was talking about how the media and fans always fall hard for the person who is "standing in the end." Self had never been there at the end. Close, but never there by himself.

"I don't think just because you're the last one standing makes you a lot smarter," he said. "Probably pretty lucky."

The next night, the Jayhawks beat Memphis for the national championship and Self was forever done with the question that has stuck to his career -- and Patrick's -- like pine tar:

[+] EnlargeDanica Patrick
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe trophy's nice, but Danica Patrick didn't have anything to prove.

When? When are you going to win one?

Self won one. And this past Sunday in faraway Motegi, Japan, Patrick won one, too.

They both needed luck. Self got a 3-pointer for the ages, as well as some missed free throws by Memphis. Then he got a confetti shower and a trophy.

Patrick got a break when her team's fuel strategy paid off late in the race. Then she got a champagne shower and a trophy. You got a problem with that?

I'm no gearhead, but even I understand the historical significance of what happened when 26-year-old Patrick finally parked her Dallara-Honda in Victory Lane. She became the first woman in IndyCar history to win a race.

"Well, I think that I'm definitely just part of a wave of women that are doing different things outside of the normal … world, so I don't think it's just me, but I think it's just showing that we're capable of anything," Patrick said in a teleconference earlier this week. "And vice versa, there's so much more gender crossover now than there ever has been. So I really just believe that I'm part of a really big picture."

Not everyone agrees. There still remains a sexist goober faction out there that thinks she's not in the picture at all -- at least, not in the good ol' boy racing picture. It's a faction of motorsports fans that thinks open-wheel racing is as easy as driving to the neighborhood Chipotle.

For instance, somebody who goes by Deputy Fife recently e-mailed USA Today with this little beaut: "Just about anybody can drive one of those IndyCars -- she wouldn't do this in NASCAR!"

Sure, anybody can drive those IndyCars. Just roll up the windows, turn on some XM Radio and make some left turns. Easy.

By the way, Scott Brayton died in an IRL car in 1996. Tony Renna died in one in 2003. Paul Dana in 2006.

And IndyCars race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, otherwise known as The Brickyard. Or The Graveyard. Depends on the year.

[+] EnlargeBill Self
Icon SMIBill Self knows it takes luck as much as skill to be the last one standing.

Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Jim Murray once began a racing column with these chilling words: "Gentlemen, start your coffins." He was writing about the Indy 500 and those open-wheel race cars. The kind Patrick drives.

Patrick didn't need to win an IRL race to convince me she had stones. Well, not stones, but … you know what I mean.

The moment she first wedged her 5-foot-2, 100-pound body into the cockpit of one of those pocket rockets, Patrick had my respect. Didn't matter if she was racing against men or soccer moms.

You ever sit in one of those things? Directly behind your back is a 3.5-liter, fuel-injected, aluminum alloy cylinder block V-8 that can produce 650 horsepower and a top speed of about 230 mph. There's a 22-gallon tank filled with fuel-grade ethanol. And if you were any lower to the ground, you'd be scraping asphalt off your buns.

At one of the Indy Japan 300 practice sessions, Patrick completed the 1.52-mile track in 27.51 seconds at 198.87 mph. It gets even dicier when you add the rest of the starting grid, the track conditions and all the variables that can alter a race.

So celebrate her for winning a race? Sure. But we should have been celebrating her -- and anybody else who does this for a living -- all along.

"I don't think any pressure is going to compare to what it was like to get a win and have that forever," Patrick said. "So it's nice to do that, and it's nice to not have to answer any questions about it, about when and how, and why hasn't [it happened]. … They always say that first one is the hardest one to get, which I agree."

Making history has its perks. Patrick arrives at the Kansas Speedway this week fresh off the talk-show circuit in New York (Letterman, "The View," MTV, CNN, ESPN, etc.). You even can buy a "Danica's First Win" T-shirt on her Web site for $22.

But finishing first after those 200 laps in Japan didn't make her any smarter or a better driver. If anything, it was those previous 49 IRL races, not a checkered flag, that helped make her the best on Sunday. That, and a little bit of Self's luck.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter