Danica Patrick's NASCAR interests piqued long ago
It was an idea pitched over a beer and grill, in a couple of folding chairs between motor coaches in the drivers' lot of Chicagoland Speedway. Scott St. John was on to something that September night in 2005. It just took a while for Danica Patrick to get there.
Patrick was 23, in her first IndyCar season with Rahal Letterman, a mainstream sensation after finishing fourth and leading 19 laps as a rookie in the Indianapolis 500. She would win the pole at Chicago that weekend and finish sixth. But she was listening to what St. John had to say. A representative with the Marathon Coach company that provides the rolling luxury homes for many drivers and owners, and a former business manager of Sprint Cup drivers Kurt and Kyle Busch, St. John had access to the powerful and the informed both in NASCAR and in open-wheel racing. He had seen traits in Patrick he thought could translate to stock cars. He had shared that opinion with Patrick's father, T.J., a friend who was then her business manager. And then St. John told Patrick. Her interest, he said, "was piqued from the start, but it took a while to show her what driving skills she had that would transfer."
Seven years later, after completing her IndyCar career, Patrick is undertaking her first full season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
"My background was NASCAR, and that's what I knew," St. John told espnW.com. "After watching her, getting to know her for a while, sitting around talking to her, I thought she had some characteristics of her driving I thought would transfer that she maybe didn't realize would: her car control, her long-race mentality, the fact she doesn't make her own mistakes. She runs mistake-free most of the time. That was it."
St. John's NASCAR credentials -- including managing Kurt Busch in his 2004 Sprint Cup championship season -- made him a trusted source, Patrick said.
I believed it when I said it. I meant it all along that she would get at least as far as she has gotten and further. I certainly think the drive and competitiveness and her ability to channel some of what drives her, that people don't realize about her, I think that will carry her further and has carried her further than anyone initially believed.Scott St. John
"He kind of knew all the worlds, and given the fact he had been in NASCAR so much and he had managed a driver, he knew a lot about it and a lot about the racing," she said. "We'd be hanging out at night, and I'd ask questions and he'd talk about it."
And then they began acting on it. Though Patrick already had begun negotiating with her next IndyCar team, which is now called Andretti Autosport, St. John began setting up a series of visits to NASCAR races and meetings with Sprint Cup owners and drivers in 2005 "to show her she had some options," he said. Initially she met with NASCAR team owner Jack Roush and then-Roush driver Mark Martin during her first visit to a Sprint Cup race -- at Phoenix International Raceway, the nearest venue to her home in Scottsdale, Ariz. It coincided with a bizarre weekend for St. John and put Patrick in the middle of one of the more surreal plotlines in recent NASCAR history.
Busch, then defending series champion, had been removed from the No. 97 Ford and released with two races left in the season because of his conduct following a traffic stop leaving the racetrack that weekend. Busch's garage area was abuzz with activity involving both the media and the Roush crew readying the car for replacement driver Kenny Wallace.
In a scene that would have been documented ad nauseam had Twitter existed, Patrick followed meetings with Roush and Martin by having a look around the garage. She already had climbed inside Martin's No. 6 Ford. Then someone suggested she see Busch's car.
"I was standing there, and [then-Busch crew chief] Jimmy Fennig is standing there, and we're really close because I worked with him for so many years," St. John recalled. "Someone made a joke about putting her in the car and she went up and threw her leg over the car like she was about to get in, and at the last minute we thought about it and said we'd better be careful of what propaganda we're putting out there. She wasn't in the car, but she was about to when she heard the joke.
"That was the time the Andretti Green contract was being done, so we didn't want to put that out there."
Though Patrick joined Andretti in 2007 after her Rahal contract expired, there were "two solid years of talking about it and bringing her to NASCAR races" after 2005, St. John said. T.J. Patrick had fueled NASCAR speculation in 2006 when he watched a Sprint Cup race at Chicago and said he'd had initial conversations with teams and sponsors. Patrick signed with representation giant IMG early in 2009 and tested an ARCA car for JR Motorsports -- her current Nationwide team -- in December. St. John and Patrick maintain contact, and though he admittedly prefers "to fly under the radar," he's pleased with how his suggestion evolved into reality.
"I believed it when I said it. I meant it all along that she would get at least as far as she has gotten and further," he said. "I certainly think the drive and competitiveness and her ability to channel some of what drives her, that people don't realize about her, I think that will carry her further and has carried her further than anyone initially believed."
St. John said that both Roush and Martin had concurred with him at Phoenix in 2005 on his assessment of Patrick's racing abilities. The questions, he said, were about commitment and fortitude. He thinks she's answering those questions now, standing at 11th place in Nationwide points entering this weekend's event at Michigan International Speedway.
"The one thing they questioned was whether she had the drive enough when the going got tough to weather the storm and the embarrassment of learning in front of everybody," St. John said. "The making mistakes and the transition part, that's one part I had confidence about from knowing her personally. She would motor right through. But that was the hardest part to sell to people in the NASCAR community. They didn't think when the going got tough that she would take the blow to the ego and drive through and stay the course. To me, I always knew she would."