One of the big stories in the NASCAR world these days is Danica Patrick’s move to a full-time NASCAR career, leaving behind her days as an IndyCar driver.
Among those closely watching Patrick’s progress is legendary crew chief Leonard Wood, who has seen his share of female drivers over the years.
Wood said that after watching Patrick race – and meeting her in person several times – he’s convinced that she’s dedicated to becoming a successful racer in cars carrying fenders.
“She’s very talented,” Wood said. “Anybody that can win in IndyCar has got to have a lot of talent.”
And Wood said that Patrick isn’t just relying on her resume; she’s working hard to learn the ropes in NASCAR.
“She’s focused on trying to do the right thing, and she’s willing to listen to the experts. Her main objective is to win races.”
Wood also believes she can be tough when she needs to be.
“She’s got a lot of spunk,” he said. “She doesn’t back down from much. She’s got what it takes.”
In many ways, Patrick’s move to NASCAR mirrors that of Janet Guthrie, who came to NASCAR in the 1970s after running Indy cars.
“She impressed me,” Wood said, adding that her mechanical ability caught his attention as well. “She once rebuilt a Jaguar sports car motor that she’d been racing.”
Wood also witnessed Guthrie’s ability to drive a stock car. He said that during a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the late 1970s, Guthrie’s crew bolted on a set of fresh tires and she started running down David Pearson, who was driving the No. 21 Wood Brothers Mercury but was on older, slower tires.
“David pulled into the pits and said, ‘I’ve got to have some tires,’” Wood said. “He wasn’t going to let her pass him.”
One of the main differences between Patrick’s and Guthrie’s moves to NASCAR is off the track. “There’s not that much difference in them as far as driving the car,” Wood said. “There is so much more media coverage now than in the 70s.”
Wood also remembers pioneering women racers like Louise Smith and Sara Christian, whose fifth-place finish at Heidelberg Speedway in Pittsburgh in 1949 – driving a 1949 Ford – remains the best for a female in the series now known as Sprint Cup.
He also watched Patty Moise and Shawna Robinson make their marks in the sport. And he’s seen modern-day female drag racers like Shirley Muldowney, and more recently John Force’s daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force.
The veteran crew chief and engine builder, who once did a little drag racing of his own, is especially impressed with their Ford Mustang Funny Cars. He first saw the Force daughters race at the new Z-Max Dragway at Charlotte.
“When those things took off, I thought they were going to shake those brand-new grandstands down,” he said. “That’s a lot of horsepower. I love to hear those engines when they rev them up. It’ll take your breath.”
One female racer that Wood was particularly impressed with is former IndyCar and sports car racer Lyn St. James, who had class wins in sports car races at Daytona and Sebring and mentored Patrick early in Patrick’s career.
“She was extremely competitive,” he said. “If Lyn St. James were in her prime today and had a good car she would run really well.”