Champion race car driver Danica Patrick says she wouldn't have raced in an all-female league

Jin S. LeeDanica Patrick speaking at Business Insider’s 2018 Ignition conference.
  • Danica Patrick is the most successful female driver in the history of racing, a hugely male-dominated sport.
  • At Business Insider’s Ignition conference, Patrick said she was motivated by a need to prove herself, and that she’s carried lessons learned into her businesses since retiring from racing this year.
  • Patrick said she had to learn how to overcome the extra attention given to her – for better or worse – and focus on her own internal motivations, so that she didn’t have to keep proving herself.

Danica Patrick is the most successful female race car driver in history. But she never intended to be a trailblazer for women. She just wanted to win – whether that meant beating out men or other women.

Patrick started racing when she was just 10 years old, and from the start she stood out in a male-dominated sport. Over her career, she raced both IndyCar (open-wheeled cars) and Nascar (stock cars) and became an international celebrity. In 2008, she took home first place in an IndyCar Series race, becoming the first woman to do so.

Before retiring earlier this year, Patrick crashed in two high-stakes races, the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. It wasn’t the way she hoped to end her career but now she’s trying to beat everyone at something else: business. She has an activewear line, Warrior, and a wine brand, Somnium.

We talked to Patrick at Business Insider’s Ignition conference before she appeared on stage with Business Insider’s Julie Bort, and in both conversations she shared what she’s learned from the ups and downs of racing, and how she’s now applying those lessons as an entrepreneur. For an episode of our podcast “This Is Success,” we highlighted key moments from both interviews.

Patrick told Bort that she learned on the racecourse not to expect other people to get out of her way.

Listen to the full episode here:

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Transcript edited for clarity.

Danica Patrick: It just isn’t handed to you, you have to earn it. I definitely had to do a lot of that. I would come up behind a car … I remember this specific situation, I won’t name names.

Julie Bort: Oh, please do.

Patrick: I was lapping him and I couldn’t get by him and he is such a jerk. I did everything I could, I mean I really did try and take him, I try to take people out a lot, it’s just not as easy as it looks without taking yourself out, which I did that too trying to do it. But I couldn’t get by him and then a car caught me because I was being held up. Got by, he literally moved over in the middle of the straightaway, let that car that passed me by, pulled back over in front of me and I am like … This is the kind of thing I dealt with regularly. Me getting by somebody was tooth and nail.

Bort: That just feels like a metaphor for life.

Patrick: Yeah.

Bort: It really does.

Patrick: It’s how you deal with it. There would be times where when I was younger and I would be young and irrational and emotional about it all and I would say every swear word I could think of, on the radio too – that was probably a bad idea. But I realised that when you let the frustration get to you and distract you, then it’s taking you away from your talent and your ability and your focus. I finally just realised that this is my lot and this is my situation and it is also my job to pass the car in front of me and so they shouldn’t just move over. It’s time to focus and make it happen and I just got better at it.

Overcoming the expectations of others

Patrick would go on to prove herself. But before she finished first, she had to grapple with self-doubt. Patrick got her first big finish in 2004, when she finished 3rd place in an IndyCar series race, but she said it seemed like the public didn’t care unless it was first place – an achievement she got in 2008.

Patrick: And I don’t know maybe you can all relate on some level to feeling like, “Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I’m not very good.” I just then had to remind myself that I didn’t get here overnight, I didn’t accomplish all these other things because I suck, and I’m here for a reason. I’ve been racing now for 15 years and I’ve been racing for 20 years and 25 years. You don’t stick around at something because you aren’t any good at it.

We all live in our head, right? We get insecure about stuff. We hope we’re good enough. We hope we’re pretty enough. We hope all these things. We’re always … We’re living in our head. It gets so easy to get wrapped up in those thoughts and you have to really discipline yourself, challenge yourself to not entertain them and correct them. The first thing is recognising when you have a negative thought come up like, “I’m going to have a bad day …” or gossiping about someone or something or judging or not feeling good about yourself.

The first step is recognising it, then as soon as you start recognising these negative patterns, then you start correcting it, then you go … You might be like, “Oh, god I look … You know what? I work really hard and I’m beautiful. I do my … I’m going to smile and it’s going to be a great day.” Those negative things that you used to think, they don’t even resonate with you anymore. I think that’s kind of what ended up happening in racing in the end, it was just… I felt so bad in that space that everybody at the track seemed miserable, they were like … Not everybody, please don’t take this out of context. But generally it’s a grind and people are …

Bort: There’s a lot of pressure. Yeah.

Patrick: There’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of things going on and not everyone is super happy, and I’m not super happy either, but I was like … I didn’t like being in that environment. I didn’t like having a bad race and feeling so angry. I’m like, “I hate this feeling. I don’t want to feel like this anymore.”

Danica patrickJamie Squire/Getty ImagesPatrick is the most successful female racer in the history of open-wheeled racing, a largely male-dominated sport — but it’s not a qualification she ever sought out.

Leaving racing behind

So, this year, Patrick decided that she would have two final races, one for IndyCar and one for Nascar. They didn’t go as planned.

Patrick: I raced in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. The Daytona 500 was first and I crashed out in both.

Bort: Yeah. It was …

Patrick: Daytona was one of those that honestly like …

Bort: You got caught up in ten cars.

Patrick: Ten cars. I was going to finish on the lead lap at the end and that’s all there is left, it’s just a … It’s a hopeful thing that you finish, so I got caught up in something. I actually never crashed an IndyCar at Indy in my whole … All of the years that I was there and all the thousands and thousands of miles I drove I never crashed at Indy, an IndyCar, until then.

Bort: I asked you how you dealt with the disappointment. I know … I was thinking to myself, I was like, “You know, when I go wrong it makes me want to double down and dig back in and do it again.” I asked you and you said something else, you said that’s how you knew that you had made the right choice.

Patrick: I think that’s something I had to come to the conclusion of last year and I think this is a lesson in life across many fronts, personal and business, is that … For me I felt like I really understood and learned this concept of letting go versus quitting. Quitting is such a finale, right? I had that feeling of like, “Oh, I’m not as successful as I want to be and I’ll just quit.” No, not really. I could have kept going. If my ego would have taken control it would have made me keep going and I wouldn’t have been able to let go of the image and I would have taken less money and I would have just kept going.

But I was just was like … So many things had come up that were signs and for me, last year my primary sponsor left, which was something that I had never had happen to me before. I had been sponsored since I was in go-karting, my book program launched at the beginning of 2017, it came out at the beginning of this year. My clothing line launched at the beginning of last year. My wine finally launched and was for sale after a process that started in 2009 at the beginning of last year. All these things were like, “Hey. Hi. You know what? Yeah, it’s not going well, is it? Maybe you need a little push in a new direction.” It made me go, “I’m ready to …” I almost … Yeah, I was ready to let go.

That was what it came to, it was let go versus quit. I needed to make space for the new stuff and if you keep hanging onto the old stuff because you’re scared of what might happen if you aren’t in that business or with that person anymore, then you’ll never know how good it could be. I think change is one of those things for me where I react initially, probably like most people, where you’re like, “Oh no!” I remember thinking that at the beginning of last year I was like, “Oh no, I’m not ready to be done. My sponsor left. I sure hope they keep me on the track. I’m not ready to be done.” What about that being the scenario? You’ll never know unless you try and you have to be brave enough to try. That’s why it’s so important to do things that you love doing because then if it goes terrible at least you’re having fun.

Building a team that will keep you on track

We got to ask Danica Patrick a few more questions off-stage. Like, what did 20 years on racing teams teach her about managing her companies today?

Patrick: Well, I mean, in racing there’s a lot of jobs, there’s a lot of people involved. I think what it really taught me, what racing really taught me, was how just doing the job is never enough. You have to find people that want to do a great job and go above and beyond. Usually that means you’ve got to find people that want to work out of love, not fear and those are the people that are going to go the extra mile and make sure that you’re happy because they have a vested interest and they care about you.

Richard Feloni: What do you mean by that? As they would be operating out of fear? What would that look like as opposed to … Yeah.

Patrick: I mean, operating of out of love versus fear as far as people that are helping you would be someone that’s afraid to get fired. They’re always timid and they don’t want to make a mistake. They don’t know exactly what to do and they’re afraid of you, maybe then they don’t even like you. But out of love you get to know the person, you get to know their story. You get to know who they are, who they are as a person, their values, their interests. They see your passion and they share it with you. So they see you working hard and they want to work just as hard, if not harder. They care about you and they care about the end result because they know you do and you know each other more intimately and it creates bigger results versus someone who is disconnected from the result or not even a part of it sometimes like you want. Everybody wants to be a part of something and they want to be a part of something bigger and have that ownership and have that pride of knowing that because of them, something happened. That’s just called empowering people and that’s something that is love based.

Feloni: Yeah. And those are the people that you can trust when you’re in the trenches and everything is chaotic around you.

Patrick: Yeah. I mean, you just want people that have your back, that care about you, that are willing to work extra hours without any credit, right? Because they just want to make sure that it goes right. Someone that’s going to pick up the phone on a Sunday, someone that you don’t have to be afraid to call them at dinner time. You just want those kinds of people around you because life doesn’t always go perfect.

Feloni: Yeah. And over the course of your career, what would you say was the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome?

Patrick: I think that the biggest challenge and I definitely maybe faced it a little bit more just because of my uniqueness and my position of being a girl in a man’s world of racing. But getting people to believe that I could really do it was tough, but I think that applies anywhere. I mean, you really have to get people to believe that you can do it no matter who you are or what you do, and some people just aren’t going to and that’s just the reality of it. You’re gonna have people that believe and don’t believe in you just as I do, but I think that I probably was up against a little bit more of that just because of sort of social situations and just the way things have been. So I think that’s tough, but I also found great people that did believe in me and I’m always very appreciative for them.

Feloni: So next year they’re launching an all female Indy racing league. Do you think that if that had been around when you had gone in you wouldn’t have had that feeling like you had something to prove type of thing in the same way?

Patrick: No. I don’t even think I would have tried to … I wouldn’t have even taken part in it. Over the years there’s definitely been all female things or female propositions of like female whole team. Not the series and it’s never been anything that I’ve wanted a part of because I just want to do the job and I want it to be irregardless of gender, looks, status, history. It’s just about you and what you can accomplish. So I really believe that the more you talk about being different, the more different that you are. So I was able to make a great career against virtually guys the entire time so I wouldn’t have wanted to kick out half of the people from a series, right? I want to compete against them all.

Feloni: How do you personally define success?

Patrick: I don’t feel like people normally answer by money necessarily and I wouldn’t either, but it’s about being happy and being able to wake up every day and look forward to your day. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be tough days. Even with things that you love to do there are going to be rough days, tough days, challenging, miserable days, a little bit of grunt work. It’s just a reality of life and business, but generally just having joy, right? Just doing something that you enjoy doing, want to keep doing it. That’s the point of life, I think, is to figure out what that is and then live it out and that’s where you’ll find your joy.

Feloni: Yeah. And what would be the best piece of advice you could give to someone for their career, if they look at your career and admire it?

Patrick: Most important thing you have to do is just find something that you enjoy doing, because at the bare minimum you’re at least doing something you enjoy if it’s not tremendously lucrative, right? And find out why you’re doing it. For me, all of my businesses have a real root and base of inspiring people and wanting to help people realise their full potential and who they really are. The kind of stuff that I felt like I had worked on that brought me to these places and spaces where I was, and having so much fun and didn’t feel like going to work was work. So you’ve got a dream into that and you’ve got to find that, and then once you have the rest is just the process and it’s just life and it’s fun.

Feloni: Well, thank you so much, Danica.

Patrick: Thank you.

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