The legend of Danica Patrick began with a blind date at a snowmobile race in Grand Forks, N.D., in the winter of 1977. That's when T.J. Patrick, a rakish young daredevil who raced motorcycles, midget cars and snowmobiles, was set up with Bev Flaten.
"I wasn't new to racing," says Bev, then a mechanic for one of the teams, "so I wasn't impressed with that. But I thought he was cute."
Hearing that, Danica Patrick giggles. Somewhere in a dusty album is a photo of T.J. from those days. He's slim and strong, trying his best to cultivate a wispy mustache. "My dad was a lean, mean, partial-mustache machine," she says, laughing.
Beyond all the sponsorships, commercial endorsements, photo shoots and controversy, the legend of Danica Patrick belongs to an aggressive, high-strung former snowmobile racer who knew almost immediately that he had a story on his hands.
"I knew she was different," he says of watching her race go-karts. "She was 10 and beating kids who were 14, 15.
"At that time, I seriously said to myself, 'She's going to change racing.'"
By being the first woman to win an IndyCar race and the highest-finishing female driver in Indianapolis 500 history and by attempting to be the first woman to win a NASCAR national series race, she has emerged as a racing and marketing marvel.
She returns to the state in which she grew up with Sunday's Nationwide STP 300 (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET).
In spite of the critics who say there's more marketing than talent and more show than go, Patrick has held steadfast to one of her dad's most ardent rules: never look back.
Shortly after T.J. put Danica in a go-kart when she was 10, he knew he'd discovered something unique. The roots of Danicamania are his formation; until recently, he managed her merchandise sales and her website and even drove her motor coach. His managerial duties ended in 2009, when professional agents and managers took over.
"It wasn't father-daughter relationship anymore; it was a client-manager relationship," he says. "Plus I'm not the sharpest cat in the world. My job wasn't to get Pepsi to sponsor her, it was to get her into a good race car and keep it. It was a relief (to step aside)."
At times, it was getting too intense. Mention T.J.'s name in the pits at an IndyCar race, and you're more likely to be met with rolling eyes than words of praise. He occasionally irritated people with his nervous energy. While partly responsible for his daughter's racing skills, he also is responsible for some of the personality traits that don't endear her to fans or competitors. At times, she has been criticized for being overly emotional, petulant and profane. So is he. She can unnerve her rivals. So can he. Danica can fume, scream and throw fits. So can he.
But without his guidance -- without the coaching of essential, basic racing skills -- she wouldn't be unnerving rivals today. "There's definitely a huge part of me that came from him," she says. "He taught me those things."
T.J. and Bev have attended only a handful of their daughter's races this year. They're comfortable with their new role, preferring instead to enjoy a life of golf and leisure at home in Indianapolis.
"It's easier this way," T.J. says. "It gets old going from race to race all the time."
They did make it to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., last month, when Danica was sent spinning into a gravel trap by Jacques Villeneuve on the final lap. Passionate as ever, T.J. raged.
"He gets so stressed out," Danica says. "I told him, 'You're going to give yourself a damned heart attack.' Sometimes I just have to say, 'Dad, calm down. You won the game, Dad. You can do anything you want. Stop getting fired up.'"
Danica's legend is like modern American politics: There is no middle ground, centrism or compromise. People are either fully on board, or they despise her. None of it bothers the subject of the howling, and her don't-care-what-others-think attitude is a family tradition.
"I'm comfortable enough with who I am and what I've done and how I've prepared," she says. "I like who I am, and I don't want to be somebody else. I don't want to be what somebody else wants me to be. I get a lot of that from my dad."
At first, it was difficult to stand down, but it's rewarding. "I've done my job," T.J. says. "She's smarter than I am, and she can handle this better than I can. Now she can do it on her own."
The legend continues. In a slightly different form and fashion, so does its creator.
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