Trust thy dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
The dreams were always the same. I was running as fast as I could, trying to escape the wolves that were chasing me. I ran and ran and ran, sweat pouring from my forehead, dripping into my eyes, stinging them as if a thousand bees had attacked me, leaving me blind. And still, I ran. I ran as fast as I could, trying to escape, but then I became stuck, unable to move. My mouth was open, as if I were yelling, but silence emerged. I was unable to scream, to yell for help. I was paralyzed — filled with fear.
Motegi, Japan, 2005
This was my first time visiting Japan, and I was very excited. It wasn't just the anticipation of the race. It was great seeing Tokyo and the country of Japan. I know that I came to Motegi as a rookie, but this track was different than the others I had run prior to coming here to race. Each end of the track is different; one end is really fast and wide, and the other end is much tighter. I hoped to do well here. My teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira have both raced at Motegi before, so they gave me some tips and advice on what to expect.
Clear skies and bright sunshine greeted the racers and the enthusiastic fans on race day. Motegi is a world-class 1.5-mile oval track. It was a pretty solid opening day for me. It took me some time to get up to speed, but my team made some good changes to my car in each of the two practice sessions, and we were able to work on both the qualifying and race day setups. It was a little hotter than I expected, which meant we had to adjust the car from the initial setup because of the changed conditions. I am getting more used to the faster oval tracks. Every time I race, I learn a little more about driving an IndyCar, and this race would be the biggest lesson so far. There is a wealth of talent and experience in this series, which means there's no room for anyone to view me as a fluke, or just another woman trying to race cars. I was beginning to show the improvement everyone looks for from rookies, and it felt good that other people were starting to see my skill shine through.
After a couple of races of qualifying at the back of the pack, I finally qualified in the top two, losing the much-sought-after and coveted pole position to Sam Hornish by 0.002 of a second. He edged me out after I led the qualifying race for most of the day. This field was as tight and competitive as it has been all season. I was uncertain how qualifying would go. I wasn't sure if I could win the pole, but after the first lap, the car felt good — really good. After my qualification attempt, I kept looking over my shoulder at the scoring tower to see if anyone had beaten my time. The conditions got a little cooler with the onset of some cloud cover, which worked to Sam's benefit, and I was bumped to "P2" — second place.
Finally, after three prior races of qualifying slow, I suddenly understood what it felt like to start on the front row of an Indy Racing League (IRL) race. It was awesome. It felt as if a ton of bricks had been lifted from my shoulders. Maybe it was that proverbial "rookie" weight that had been slowing me down up to this race. It didn't matter. I knew I had arrived as a driver, and it felt great. I was nervous. This was the first time I had started in the front, and I knew it was my first real chance of the season to show these boys what I was made of...and it's not sugar and spice. Nope. Not this girl. I was filled with adrenaline and determination, piss and vinegar.
I took the lead right from the start, passing Sam on the outside at turn two. I nearly spun in the middle of the pass. My tires were cold, which means they didn't have much grip on the track. But I managed to make it stick and took the lead. I was in the lead for a while, being chased by the other drivers as if they were those wolves that used to haunt me in my dreams. But this chase was no dream. It was real. It was happening live, in full Technicolor, and at 220 mph. I realized that day I am no longer terrified of being chased. In fact, I love being chased. It meant I was in the lead. I raced in front for most of the day — and I felt relieved.
Racing experts say that if you have a good race in Motegi, chances are you'll have a good race in Indianapolis. I wasn't sure if that was true or not. All I knew was that I was having the time of my life. But I was disappointed by the outcome. My engineer gave me the direction to change fuel positions, which restricts the amount of fuel going through the engine. If I hadn't conserved my fuel by slowing down, I would never have made it to the finish line. This strategy got me my highest finishing position so far. It was a challenging race because I am learning I can't always drive the car as hard as I would like — and I like to drive hard. I gained precious experience, which is what a rookie season is all about. It was frustrating, because the car was so good. I started second and finished fourth — things were looking up.
There was no turning back. I now had the confirmation that I could be a real contender in racing. Other people now knew it too. I showed the doubters I can lead a race, set the pace, and possibly — no, probably — find an IRL win. Though nobody ever said it to my face, prior to Motegi I think a lot of people were skeptical of my ability. They thought I was a good publicity tool for the IRL but never gave me the respect or credit I deserved as a driver — at least not until that day.
The chase was officially "on" after that race. I knew I had a shot at winning the Indy 500, and now so did everyone else.
What's mine is mine and what's your is up for grabs.
Roscoe, Illinois, 1992
Most young girls aren't staying up nights dreaming of someday winning the Indy 500, but then again, I wasn't the average ten-year-old. While in some ways I was just like other girls my age, still playing with Barbie dolls and baking cookies with my mom, I also spent most of my childhood watching my dad work on racecars, fascinated by his knowledge of engines and the technical engineering aspects of engines and body frames. I became equally intrigued by the sensation of driving fast — really fast. I come from a family of adventure seekers. The exhilaration I felt when I stepped on the pedal of my first go-kart was enough to hook me for life. I loved going fast and steering my kart around tight corners and barreling down the straightaways. I felt a freedom unlike anything I had experienced before that day. I got the same feeling as the one I get when I ride a roller coaster. Faster, faster. Woo hoo! At age ten, I had found my life's passion. From that point forward, I had a one-track mind. Instead of playing soccer after school or taking piano lessons, I dedicated myself to becoming the best racecar driver in the world.
Dreams lift us from the commonplace of life to better things.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In dream interpretation books, being chased by an animal or a shadowy creature usually represents one's passion or natural feelings. So I guess you might say that my childhood dreams were really projecting my future. Literally and figuratively, I now find myself being chased for a living. To be certain, it's far better to be chased than to be the one coming from behind, doing the catching up. My girlhood dreams of becoming a racecar driver are now my reality. I spent so many nights dreaming of what it would be like to win. In my mind I believed I won every race — and in my dreams I did. It's funny looking back, because in my dreams I often had to convince people that I had really won. I'd ask, "Did you see me? Did you see me win that race?" I always found myself trying to convince everyone in my dreams that I had won — that I was the winner.
My dreams weren't always about driving, but they were always about racing — whether I was running on foot in a race or using our driveway as a racetrack. Perhaps those dreams were an early foreshadowing of the years to come — of people doubting my skill, my drive, and my absolute ambition and determination. Why didn't anybody believe me? Why did they doubt my victorious outcome? Why did I continually have to prove myself?
Of course, I always recognized that these were just dreams — sometimes even nightmares — yet they were all vivid figments of my imagination. Or were they?
The truth is...they were more than just figments of my imagination. They became manifestations of my thoughts. There are no coincidences. My dreams projected the story of the following fourteen years of my life, to the present day and, I'm sure, well beyond the writing of this book. I no longer have those bad images, but my days of proving myself as a worthy competitor are far from over.
It takes twenty years to become an overnight success.
Phoenix, Arizona, 2006
The year 2005 was the most exciting of my fourteen years of driving. At twenty-three, I became the youngest woman to turn the world of IndyCar racing upside down, bringing the Series into the mainstream for the first time in many years. People often ask if I am surprised by the sudden fame and attention I've received this year? The answer is a simple "no." I'm not surprised at all. In fact, although I realize the amount of attention I've received as a rookie driver is out of balance with the norm, it is the last thing I thought about when it came to my career and my racing. There's a rare type of certainty that's hard to describe unless you possess it yourself. It's a level of self-confidence that straddles the line between secure and arrogant. It's a type of knowing — of self-belief that is unaffected by what others think or believe. Despite their opinions, it's the comfort to forge your own path. If you have it, you know what I'm talking about. If not, you probably know someone who does. It's that person who walks into a room and everyone wants to know who he or she is. It's a sense of confidence and self-assurance that one is born with — not the kind you develop through years of success or adulation. People say I've had that distinctive certainty my entire life. It's how I knew what my calling was at such an early age. It's like falling in love — you know when you know. You can't describe that feeling, but you know without a doubt it's the real deal.
Becoming a professional racecar driver is what I've worked for since the first day I sat behind the wheel of a go-kart in my hometown of Roscoe, Illinois. Mom and Dad took me and my younger sister on regular family outings to our local track. I loved the feeling of driving — of being in control, of using my head and outsmarting the other drivers. From day one, I knew this was my calling, my destiny, my dream — and I knew that someday I would it make my dream come true.
In 2005 the media introduced the term "Danica mania." I think people began to believe what I've always known — that I can compete, I can hold my own. I am equal competition — and yes, I can win. It was my rookie season as an Indy driver, and I shattered several IRL records, including tying for the most pole positions won by a rookie in the history of the sport and becoming the first woman driver to consistently qualify and place in the series.
Like any rookie, I've had to prove myself as both a driver and an athlete, qualifying more quickly and racing faster than my peers just to earn the respect that I deserved to be on the track — something I would otherwise have been given if I weren't seen as "the girl on the track" or as "driving the princess-mobile," to quote many of my critics (and some of the other drivers and their teams). You don't get to be an Indy driver without talent. Even the drivers who are at the back of the pack are skilled and capable drivers, but the back of the pack is the last place I want to be — ever, on and off the track. I like to win. I like to be number one.
I always had a need to be first. When I was a young girl, I used to race the boys back to the classroom from recess, just to see who could get there the fastest. (I usually won.) I wasn't one of those young girls who always (or ever) let the boys win in tetherball or four square. I was aggressive and had a will to win, even then. While my mother never told me to let the boys win, she did ask me to stop kicking them between their legs, something I did whenever I felt threatened or angry. I was one of those girls who played just as rough whether I was competing against a boy or a girl. I never discriminated when it came to winning. In the seventh grade, I played basketball as a point guard on the junior high team. I was a pretty good player except for my hair, which always seemed to drape over my face during a game, making it hard to see the ball. I loved driving the basket, I played aggressively, usually fouling out at some point during the game, sometimes in the first quarter!
I play hard. I always have and always will. My dad was usually in the stands watching me with pride — especially when I fouled, thinking "that's my girl!" The other girls didn't understand my fierce competitive ways. I laughed at the referee. I called him names. I waved my hands in the air and questioned calls. You might say I sometimes went a little "John McEnroe" out there, but ultimately I wanted to win. My competitive spirit never allowed me to lay back and let anyone win. It still doesn't. I hope it never will.
My family, especially my dad, brought me up to believe that a game is never just a game. Playing anything against another person can be competitive. Backgammon, poker, basketball, golf, you name it...it's all got a competitive edge. Sometimes my basketball coach would tell me to chill out. He'd say, "It's just a game." But he was wrong. It was never just a game — at least not to me. What was the point of participating if I wasn't going to try to be the best? If I didn't give it my all? My dad taught me to never be satisfied with second place, and therefore I grew up believing you can always do better.
Even if I won, Dad showed me how I could have won by a bigger margin, gone a little faster, or improved on mistakes I made. (To be honest, he still does that!) That's the mind-set that was instilled in me at a very young age and it's pretty much how I move through the world today. I am one of those women who understands that when things get tough, it's time to push harder — to rise to the challenge, as opposed to caving in and surrendering. I will do whatever it takes to make something happen, especially when I want it so much I can taste it. That holds true in all areas of my life.
The word "impossible" simply doesn't exist in my vocabulary. If someone tells me I can't do something or will never make a successful attempt at something, I smell a challenge. I view their doubt as my opportunity to prove them wrong. I'll try harder than anyone else ever has just to make certain I can change the outcome in my favor.
Being told "no," "you can't," "it won't work" — I have to laugh just thinking about it, because every time I hear those words I have the same response: Wanna make a bet?
Even though I always had a high level of self-esteem and possessed the certainty I just spoke about, it hasn't always been easy for me to feel completely comfortable in my actions. I believe confidence and self doubt can coexist. The trick is to figure out how to be confident more often than not! You have to learn to doubt your doubt and to understand that fear is self-created and challenges can be met. Did I ever doubt myself? You bet. There have been so many times in my life and career when I wondered if I was strong enough, fast enough, pretty enough, good enough, and talented enough. There were times, especially in my teen years, where my confidence was so low I wondered if racing was just a fantasy. I was so down, and I had no support team — no one to talk to. My family was too far away, and I had no real friends nearby. It was incredibly lonely. I didn't have anyone I felt I could really rely on for support, both professionally and personally. But those years were really important in developing my inner strength and courage. They taught me that no one travels through life happy and confident all the time. How could you ever understand courage if you didn't experience fear? You can really feel loneliness only if you have also experienced unconditional love and support, something I grew up knowing from the inside out.
A lot of people have wondered why I am choosing to write a book so early in my career. To me, it doesn't feel too early. I have been racing and working for fourteen years! It hasn't been a cakewalk. No one handed me a thing. I earned my position in racing through lots of hard work, perseverance, determination, and dedication, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it, right?
Hard work always pays off. Achieving a high level of success is a difficult process, but it is so worth the chase. Success doesn't just happen. You have to go out there and make it happen. If you sit around waiting for success, it'll never come. In the end, all you'll be is someone just sitting around waiting for success.
With all of the attention I've received in the past few years, I think my story has inspired a lot of people. All different kinds of people — not just race fans. I'm a pretty ordinary girl who was blessed with extraordinary purpose and ambition. My story isn't one filled with a dark, jaded past. It's not one of overcoming addiction or battling some horrific disease. I'm not a young Hollywood starlet struggling with an eating disorder or partying my ass off night after night. I'm a small-town girl who had a dream and a family who helped her believe that anything is possible. I am living proof that if you work hard and aim high, you can do whatever you set your mind to, even if that makes you different. Take it from me. What makes you different makes you great. I know in my heart that being different is a good thing — it's certainly how I got here. I wanted to share my story so that anyone who has ever felt defeated or uncertain of her talents or her future can know in her gut that you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep moving in a forward direction, no matter what obstacles lie ahead. This book is for all of us who have to navigate the daily speedway of life, who sometimes need a reminder to slow down or a push to get up and go, go, go. It's a book for all of you who were told "you can't," but you "did" anyway. I am proud of what I've accomplished and know the best is yet to come.
One the most rewarding aspects of all the attention I've received this past year is showing the world that women can do anything, but it's not just about a woman competing in a male-dominated sport. It's about being the best at whatever you do, regardless of gender. I didn't win the 2005 Indy 500, but I proved that a woman can compete at a top level in racing. For the first time in racing history, a woman placed in the top four and led for nineteen laps. For the first time in more than twenty years, an Indy driver made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and for the first time ever, that driver was a woman — and that woman...was me.
When you look in the side-view mirrors on your car, there's usually type at the bottom that reads "objects in mirror may appear closer than they are." If I had a mirror in my mind there might be a similar saying, except mine would swap the word "closer" for "bigger." I have big thoughts — sometimes bigger than they appear. I have never feared dreaming big or making the impossible possible. If you can think it, you can become it. I have known this since age ten. After I sat in my first go-kart, I never had a "Plan B." I was always going to be a professional racecar driver, whether that meant going to college to study engineering so I could learn how to build my own racecar or driving my dad's truck around my parents' office building to learn how to go faster even if I couldn't see over the steering wheel at the time! Whenever I wasn't on the track, it was always about racing. It was all I ever wanted to do.
Learning to exaggerate your mind means dreaming big and never giving up when you're defeated. A loss is still a learning experience. I spent my first season as an IRL driver in search of that inevitable yet elusive win. With every checkered flag and each fourth-place, tenth-place, or even eighteenth-place finish, I came off the track with more experience, more knowledge, and more drive than I had before the green flag was thrown. Every loss is an opportunity to learn and grow. I will never again have a rookie season in the IRL. With each step I took as a driver to get here, I set goals for myself, and one by one I have reached almost all of them along the way. If I ever stop dreaming big for myself, I know it will be time for me to retire.
My ability to see the next race as a win, or my next win as a step toward becoming the champion, is the difference between victory and defeat, regardless of the outcome of every race I run. One of my favorite sayings is "If you shoot for the stars and fall short, you'll still land on the moon." I'm not sure who taught me that, but it definitely guides my life. What would have been the point of reaching for Indy if I didn't believe I could win or positively impact the sport? If I never thought that what happened at Indy this year was possible, or if I never thought that I could be a part of bringing the IRL Series into the mainstream, I would have been completely unprepared for everything that happened this past year, let alone my entire life leading up to this moment. Instead of overwhelming me, the past fourteen years have been the most unbelievable and fantastic ride — one that I've enjoyed every minute, moment, and mile.
Copyright © 2006 by Danica Racing, Inc.