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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
To Brooke Patrick, sister Danica's fame is surreal

By Brant James

Brooke Patrick didn't need any verification, but there it was on the television screen: two little girls on go-karts, careening around a circular track defined by paint cans in the back lot of a Roscoe, Ill., business park.

Brooke Patrick was 8 years old, Danica Patrick was 10. They both were horribly slow in the tiny karts their father, T.J., had built for them. But it was a start, for one of them.

The footage, recently transferred from their parents' video cassettes to a DVD, with "APRIL 4 92" time-stamped midscreen, would buttress Brooke's long-held recollections of that day for perpetuity. Her big sister became a professional but wasn't the champion among siblings.

"I have proof that I was faster than her," Brooke said, laughing. "I ran much faster around that circle than she did. She had strategy, though. She started letting up, so then I had to make the full lap around. So she had some strategy, but I had some speed."

Those circles sent one of them off on a career path that would make her a fortune, make her a household name and an ever-present media curiosity. It eventually would send the other on her way to something different. The outcomes seem to suit both.

"I feel like it definitely worked out the way it was supposed to be," Brooke said. "I think her personality always fit that role. She could handle all that. I probably am in the perfect role for me."

The sisters, one a full-time NASCAR driver, the other a pediatric physical therapist, had the chance to rehash their versions of the beginnings of Danica Patrick's racing career this past weekend at another life juncture they shared.

Danica, now 30, synced a rare idle weekend in her full-time Nationwide and part-time Sprint Cup schedules with the throwing of her sister's bachelorette party at a Tennessee resort. There was drink and food, but no scavenger hunts or anatomically suggestive party favors, at the behest of Brooke, 28 and admittedly the more understated of Bev and T.J. Patrick's little girls.

Maybe they again marveled how a life's journey began when go-karts became the outlet for family merriment when the local man selling the pontoon boat didn't return their father's calls about an offer. Maybe they continued to be amazed at how much alike they discover each other to be as they grow older. Or maybe they laughed about how this whole thing was little sister's idea. Danica, as it turns out, was the "girlie girl," Brooke said, and she the gearhead.

"I just kind of enjoyed driving everything, whether it was the lawnmower or my parents' work trucks when we were way too young to be driving," Brooke said in a phone interview with espnW.com. "I just liked anything that had an engine and drove.

"I remember even one time when she was a kid, waiting at the bus stop before I could go into school. I had a tricycle, a Big Bird tricycle, and I would make hot laps in the driveway and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

"So I just asked my dad one day, 'Hey, I want to race go-karts.' So he asked my sister if she wanted to try it as well, and she said, 'I'll give it a shot.' It wasn't necessarily her No. 1 focus, but she was excited about it. More than anything, I think she didn't want to be left out."

Where it all began

The long path to the seat of a race car in the Indianapolis and Daytona 500s began for Danica Patrick on the front seat of the family's Ford pickup. The sisters had amused themselves as children riding loops around the family shop, radio blaring, slowly, for hours.

These low-speed laps -- Brooke was barely big enough to reach the pedals -- offered a whiff of freedom and adventure but were really just an early manifestation of a family obsession with motorized movement. T.J. Patrick had raced everything from karts to motocross and met Bev, also a dabbling racer, on a blind date at a snowmobile race.

"I think, in general, I think successes tend to be a little mind-blowing," Danica said. "Like, where did that come from and how did that happen? That's kind of what becomes inspiring in that it comes from something simple. It almost always does."

The little girls, tagging along to local short tracks as their father helped work on a friend's midget car, would form the chunks of clay from race car tires along the catch fence into play toys, awaiting their chance to buy snow cones and licorice at a concession stand.

"We grew up watching racing and with my parents racing," Brooke said. "So the thought for us to do it wasn't some stretch. We were like, 'All right, do we buy a pontoon boat or do we go racing?' So we went racing."

Danica's first jaunt might have dissuaded her parents if they hadn't competed themselves.

"A brake pin came out, so she didn't have brakes," Brooke remembered. "But I don't think she was thinking that she couldn't turn, so she went straight into a concrete wall. My dad was thinking, 'I just killed my daughter.' I think her experience was definitely more memorable than mine."

But Brooke's experience became decreasingly palatable within the first few months the sisters karted together, culminating one afternoon at Sugar River Raceway (Wis.) near their hometown. A track full of impatient adults frustrated with the young sisters eventually sent Brooke off the track and out of the sport.

"We would practice against grown men and all sorts of different speeds of go-karts, so ours was by far the slowest one," Brooke said. "I just remember the reason I stopped racing was I had one day where I got in like four different accidents, whether someone spun me out, another one drove over top of me and they were just making me like a pin ball, and so I just told my parents I love to race but I don't like this crashing, so I really don't want to do this anymore.

"I only raced a few months. It was pretty comical. The first couple of races, even the parade laps where we're trying to pack up, Danica and I were just slow. It took us a few times even on the parade lap to even get packed up.

"I like to joke to her that I'm undefeated, my record. But that's the only bragging rights I have, because I didn't win any trophies or anything. But I was lapped less than she was."

Danica had become intrigued, however, and continued karting on her own, quickly improving to the point her family traveled nationally as she amassed championships. Brooke's idea had become Danica's passion.

Different paths

As Danica's new obsession slowly blossomed into the beginnings of a career and she began dreaming of racing in the Indianapolis 500 by high school, Brooke returned to a more typical teenage existence. She was a gymnast, a cheerleader, an emissary against loneliness traveling to England by herself a few times a year when her sister left Roscoe as a 16-year-old to compete in the open wheel developmental series in Europe.

As her sister slowly advanced in racing, Brooke attended the University of Tennessee -- which is why her bachelorette party was held near Knoxville -- and became a physical therapist. She works with children with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries at renowned Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. There she is impactful and anonymous, and thankful for both.

"I have it nice because I can go inside [Danica's] circle and be fine, or leave and be who I am," Brooke said. "I don't like to tell people at work who my sister is, because my day is 'Brooke, physical therapist,' and there's a lot of people at work who know me as that and I like to keep it that way.

"Some people do treat you differently if they know your sister is famous, happier, asking questions, always wanting to know what your sister is doing. It's less about you and more about who you know."

But she neither begrudges nor envies her sister's fame, the scope of which continues to astound her. For Brooke Patrick, there is the Danica Patrick shilling auto insurance or antifreeze on her television screen during the race broadcasts she still enjoys, and then there is her sister, the one with whom she used to fight over clothes as teenagers.

"It's very weird," she said of her sister's notoriety. "It's never gotten to the point where I'm like, 'Oh yeah, it's so normal.' There's still times where it's almost like two different people, the person I see on TV, and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, that's my sister,' but then either when we talk or we see each other, it's just another person. Then it's real. I know this is my sister.

"But I also have the reminders of when we're together, of how different life is now. You go places and people recognize her or you go to restaurants, and all of a sudden, you sit at the really nice tables and the chefs come out. They don't come out to see me at restaurants. So I mean there are those reminders, but it still is extremely surreal."

And Aunt Danica?

The Patrick sisters, born two weeks shy of two years apart, are far from copies of each other physically. Danica is a brunette, Brooke blond, but their facial features are similar enough -- reminiscent of their mother -- to reveal them as siblings when they are together.

There are other subtle little commonalities, a disdain for traffic, waiting in lines, the way their speech cadence slows and their voice lowers before a point is made in a quickened, breezier flourish. These shared mannerisms have become more uniform with each passing year, to her surprise, Brooke said.

Her fiancée, Chase Selman, an executive with the Dreyer & Reinbold IndyCar team who was set up on a blind date with Brooke by T.J. Patrick and Selman's brother, Cody, was taken aback by the similarities when the sisters spent a few days together recently. He said in an email that among their many similarities "they know exactly what they want in life."

"I think you can definitely tell that we grew up in the same household," Brooke said. "I think if anything, I'm a mixture of my mom and my dad. I guess I have more motherly-like instincts. I've always wanted to be a mom, where that's not really something she's had. So that's more of my mom in me.

"She's kind of definitely more my dad. I feel like I'm more 50-50 and she's more 75-25."

Aunt Danica, she fears and yet anticipates with a giggle, will be puckish.

"I think she's going to spoil the crap out of them," she said, laughing. "She's going to be the fun aunt who exposes them to all the stuff you don't tell Brooke about. She wants to have fun with them, but when they're cryin' or sick or start whinin', she's going to pass them right back and say, 'Here you go. I'm out.'"

Keeping it simple

But first the bachelorette party. "A lot of work, but an honor," Danica said of being matron of honor for the Dec. 1 wedding.

"What she wanted to do on her bachelorette party was relax and have, like, a really nice time and not run around club-hopping and stuff like that. She wanted to have a relaxing time."

Brooke was pleased.

"Yes! That's what I told her," she exclaimed. "I don't want boas. I don't want to drink out of a penis straw. Don't give me the paraphernalia or make me do 10 stupid things at a bar. That's really not my personality."

Little sister got her way on this one. Racing helped underwrite the party, and racing, after all, was her idea. Brooke is also undefeated against her big sister. And she has video to prove it.