INDIANAPOLIS — At a venue famous for elevating women to lofty heights in sports, Danica Patrick is punching a new hole in an old glass ceiling. Before last weekend, never had a woman competing against the men at the Indianapolis 500 been booed so loudly.
The most popular driver on the IndyCar circuit has never been one to hide her emotions. She complained bitterly about her car setup after a bad qualifying run last Saturday, and since then, the debate about the jeering reaction from the stands has taken on a life of its own.
Was Patrick out of line by throwing her race team under the bus when she complained?
Is she a whiny, overextended, underachieving driver who gets by more on looks and gender than real talent?
And would the boos have rained down if a man had made the same complaints?
"I don't know," Patrick said. "I would guess so. I think in sports, when you blame, it's never perfect."
Patrick, one of a record four women in Sunday's race, admitted to being surprised by the reaction when her comments boomed over the track's PA system about 10 minutes after she spoke last Saturday. Her slow, balky car frustrated her and landed her in the 23rd qualifying position for this Sunday's race. In five previous appearances, she had never qualified outside the top 10.
To her credit, she spent much of Thursday's media day taking the blame for what she said. She said a conversation with teammate Tony Kanaan had helped her get her head on straight again and insisted she understood why people wouldn't like hearing her complain.
"It makes me feel bad but I understand why," she said. "I kind of broke a cardinal rule in sports and blamed someone. I understand. What I said came across really aggressive, and I know that."
At Indy, where Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher and other women have been racing for more than three decades, never has a female driver faced such a negative reaction from the fans.
But Patrick was hardly the first driver to complain publicly about a ride.
It happens almost every week, never more famously than in 1985, when the inimitable A.J. Foyt called his car "a tub o' (expletive)" during an interview broadcast over the sound system and on national TV. But Patrick carries extra baggage, and unlike Foyt, none of that baggage includes an Indy 500 title, let alone four.
"I think when she got out of the car, the car scared her, and her adrenaline was through the roof," car owner Michael Andretti said. "We've all been there. She's Danica, so we know what she's like and we know what she is when her adrenaline is high."
The booing last weekend was such a different scene from five years ago, when Patrick, then a 23-year-old rookie, bolted to the lead with 10 laps to go in a race where she finished fourth.
The crowd of about 300,000 went wild. For a time, it appeared Patrick might be the one to restore some energy to a struggling series and a race struggling to stay relevant.
Since then, Patrick has come a long way on talent. But clearly her looks and personality do a lot for her, too, as her zipper-pulling commercials for godaddy.com and her heavy travel, promotional and interview schedule attest to. After the disappointments of last weekend, Patrick spent the first part of this week on the talking circuit in New York — not the kind of schedule the 16th-ranked driver in IRL would normally take on.
That rankles some people.
"You hear some people talk about how she thinks she's 'it,'" said race fan Michael Hopson. "I just try to go with the flow. There's still a lot of fans that like her."
Certainly, Patrick's foray into NASCAR's second-tier series this year is having an impact on how fans see her, though the exact effect is hard to measure.
"I had to know that was going to happen," she said.
Going to NASCAR was a seemingly natural move for an up-and-coming driver, but one that has coincided with her worst IndyCar season. She insists her struggles are not related to being stretched too thin.
Not everyone agrees.
"She has taken her career on a path where she's trying to compete in NASCAR and in IndyCar," said 1998 Indy 500 champion Eddie Cheever, now calling the race for ABC. "I'm not saying it's presumptuous on her side to attempt it, but that will add a lot of weight on her shoulders when she's accustomed to success here."
Past success, however, is having very little carry-over this year.
She and Andretti made no secret Thursday that Patrick's car was not performing well, was clearly not the fastest and that any chance of winning would be driven as much by good racing fortune as horsepower.
They have Carb Day — Friday — to iron things out. Patrick has given very little indication that she expects good results come Sunday.
"I might get booed if I win, too, but that's OK," Patrick said. "Winning will solve everything for me. That's the be-all, end-all cure for me. I don't know if it'll cure everything from the fans' perspectives, but I can't force them to feel a certain way."
AP Sports Writers Michael Marot and Cliff Brunt in Indianapolis contributed to this report.