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Retired racer Danica Patrick provides G2E with fuel for thought

When the green flag fell on the final day of G2E at the Sands Expo and Convention Center Thursday, the choice of Danica Patrick to deliver a keynote speech (of sorts) might have seemed curious.

But as one of only a handful of female auto racing drivers who have competed at the highest level, she was successful in breaking down barriers and altering stereotypes. In that way, she has much in common with the industry she addressed in a chat hosted by Bo Bernhard of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute.

The special events hall was only half-filled when the retired lead foot walked on stage at 9 a.m. One sleepy-eyed global gaming delegate said she should have driven out in her race car to wake everybody up.

Patrick spoke for an hour about how drive and determination fuel her success. That also was the title of the roundtable discussion. She talked about having interviewed Gloria Steinem for her podcast and about the Somnium vineyard in California where she’s making a 2018 Napa Valley Rose that retails for $38.

The description of the wine notes its “racy bright acidity.” Which, I believe, is also what Patrick accused grumpy Richard Petty of having when the NASCAR legend criticized her driving skills.

In 191 Cup Series starts over seven years she failed to win a race, with a best finish of 24th in season points. She was sometimes referred to as the Anna Kournikova of stock car racing — someone who became better known for her brand than her talent.

Racing resentment

“She was more popular than (tennis players) who had more accomplishments, and so people were pushed into a corner — do you like her or not like her?” Patrick said of the Kournikova comparisons. “I got that, too, because I got more attention than people who accomplished a lot more than I did.”

Patrick made the bold move to NASCAR after the 2011 IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in which two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon — one of her closest racing pals — was killed in a grisly 15-car pileup she managed to avoid.

In 116 IndyCar starts over eight years she won once, with a best finish of fifth in the 2009 IndyCar Series standings.

But Patrick also is one of only 14 drivers to have led both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500. She was the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 2005 when she led 19 laps and might have won the race were it not for having to conserve fuel — Wheldon passed her for the win with seven laps to go.

She was only 23 then, a precocious age for becoming a role model for thousands of little girls and a bunch of big ones, too.

“If I would have won, the whole trajectory of my life would have been different,” she said.

Fuel for thought

But Danica Patrick always has been the type to look up the track instead of what’s in her rearview mirror.

“So when I look back at that Indy 500 — that I could make it to the end and still have 2½ gallons of fuel left — I don’t care because I would have had a different life,” she said. “And I don’t want to have a different life than what I have right now.”

At 37 and still supremely fit, she is of the age when many NASCAR drivers are just entering their primes. But she said she was comfortable in walking away from the sport after taking a bow (and 67 race-day laps) at the 2018 Indy 500.

With so many variables deciding who wins races, Patrick said it was always more about the process than the result for her.

“What I loved about it was … the hope of accomplishing something better,” she said. “Coming in each year and feeling really hopeful and positive and excited about being able to have a better season — once I got to the point where that wasn’t so realistic anymore, that took the joy out of it.”

It’ll be up to the historians and the pit road reporters and those in the Turn 4 bleachers getting wicked sunburns to determine how Patrick’s contributions to auto racing ultimately will be judged.

But they don’t say “Gentlemen, start your engines!” at Indianapolis anymore. They say “Ladies and gentlemen.” Or “Drivers.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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