On this day in 1982, Danica Patrick, the first woman to win an IndyCar Series race, America’s top level of open-wheel racing, is born in Beloit, Wisconsin.
Patrick became involved in racing as a young girl and as a teenager moved to England in pursuit of better training opportunities. In 2002, after returning to the United States, she began driving for the Rahal Letterman Racing team, owned by 1986 Indianapolis 500 champ Bobby Rahal and late-night talk show host David Letterman. In 2005, Patrick started competing in IndyCar events, which include the famed Indianapolis 500 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana.
On May 29, 2005, Patrick made her Indy 500 debut, becoming just the fourth female driver ever to compete in the celebrated 500-mile race, which was first held in 1911 and today is considered one of auto racing’s premier events. (Driver Janet Guthrie first broke the gender barrier at the Indy 500 in 1977.) During Patrick’s inaugural Indy 500, she led the race for 19 laps, marking the first time a woman ever led a lap in the competition. In the end, the diminutive driver, who stands 5’2″ and tips the scales at 100 pounds, finished the race in fourth place. She later earned Rookie of the Year honors for the Indy Racing League’s 2005 season and finished 12th in the overall standings.
During the 2006 season, Patrick finished in ninth place in the overall IndyCar standings, but didn’t win any major races. In 2007, she moved to the Andretti Green Racing team and finished the season seventh in the standings. On April 20, 2008, Patrick, then 26 years old and competing in her 50th IndyCar Series race, won the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Montegi in Montegi, Japan, making her the first female winner of a major U.S.-sanctioned open-wheel race. She finished the 200-lap race 5.8594 seconds ahead of Helio Castroneves, then a two-time Indy 500 champ. At the 2009 Indy 500 race, Patrick came in third behind winner Castroneves and second-place finisher Dan Wheldon.
Off the track, the photogenic Patrick has been a media and fan favorite and has found success with a number of commercial endorsements.