Danica Patrick has fond memories of hometown
Danica Patrick left many things behind in Roscoe, Ill.: friends, memories, formative moments. Somewhere in the math office at Hononegah High School in nearby Rockton, she left her disdain for geometry under a stack of makeup work. Even as a 15-year-old, it seems, Patrick knew Roscoe couldn't hold her. And she knew what she would need for the journey.
Now 30, a NASCAR driver and a media dynamo with little daily need for geometry -- as she predicted -- Patrick still sees the quiet northern Illinois hamlet as the charming place a little girl grew up in before life began moving very fast.
The question with small-town folks who become big-time stars is whether the town defined them, or they the town. In this case, it may be both.
"I was very glad I grew up in a small Midwestern town," Patrick said. "I run into people all the time who have done that, and I like them. Roscoe was just a great place to be a kid."
Some of the key traits in Patrick's adult personality already had evolved by her sophomore year at Hononegah: singular focus, studiousness, opinionatedness. Matt Simpson, then a first-year teacher of sophomore-level geometry, learned quickly.
"She was a good student, but even at that age she was more focused on her racing career than she probably was on her academics," he said in a phone interview with espnW.com. "I was a first-year teacher, so I was kind of entering with a pretty idealistic attitude as far as what I believed in education, and so it wasn't always necessarily smooth sailing with her.
"I can remember several times she would be, 'You know, I don't even need this, anyway. I'm going to be racing in the Indy 500 in a couple years,' and I was kind of like, 'What if that doesn't work out? You know, you still need your high school education.'
"I guess looking back on it now, I can have a little bit more appreciation for the determination she had for what her goal was and doing everything she had to meet that goal."
Growing up in a friendly oasis
Roscoe is a village of just under 11,000, nestled a dozen miles north of Rockford, 10 miles south of Beloit, Wis., where Patrick was born, and 100 west of Joliet, where she will race in the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup series this weekend. "Mayberry," mayor David Krienke said of his village, which hides in the shadows of Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison.
"It's friendly," he added. "I mean it. Very friendly."
Accessible to big cities and college towns by what any Midwesterner would consider a blink of a drive, Roscoe is sequestered in resounding normalness. It's a place where an intersection is a teenage oasis, where parents feel secure enough inside their bubble, Krienke said, to excuse youthful chicanery and the occasional commission of "something sneaky."
"We are very relaxed with our children," he said. "They can get out and be themselves and explore. Kids are kids. They can have their parties and things like that. I think kids can be themselves, and you don't always have that fear of something happening to your kids here.''
"It was very small," Patrick said. "My grade school, we graduated like 38 kids. My grade school was called Prairie Hill, and we called it Prairie Hill Hall because it was so small, K through eighth grade. It was a lot of county roads.''
A grin crossed her face as she recalled the intersection of State Route 251 and Hononegah Road, where a Mobil station, a McDonald's and an Anna Maria's restaurant formed the crossroads of Roscoe's teen social scene. Her father, T.J., surmised it would be a fine place for Patrick to be seen in her black Mustang Cobra with leather interior -- her first car, bristling with horsepower -- and help keep her out of trouble on the road. It actually helped her get her first speeding ticket in Roscoe.
"We would always drive to the Mobil gas station and park and wait for other people to show up and figure out what was going to happen," she said. "This was back in the day and age of beepers. ... Beepers. So, we'd all meet up at the Mobil, figure out where the place to go was. There were bonfires, a whole lot of bonfires in my life, and there were parties when parents would leave, that kind of thing. Normal, adolescent growing up."
ESPN motorsports broadcaster Nicole Briscoe, who was two years ahead of Patrick at Hononegah High, concurred that the intersection was and remains a "total teen jackpot."
Just up Elevator Road, the Poison Ivy Pub, owned by family friend Steve Quies, has displayed a wall of Patrick's racing memorabilia since the beginning of her career.
"It was a lot of two-kids-and-a-dog kind of living," Patrick said of Roscoe life. "It's the kind of place where everybody goes to the chain restaurants. It's all about the Applebee's and the Outback steakhouses."
Roscoe's population is small enough that it's not hard to find someone who either attended a wedding with or sat in a manicure parlor next to Patrick. Though she has lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., since 2007 and hasn't returned home since her parents moved to Indianapolis two years ago, Patrick said she still has a few close friends in Rockford.
The residents are extremely interested in her return. Many of them are hoping to have a few items autographed, but they say they'd be happy to see her even it doesn't involve a Sharpie. They're proud of what Patrick has done to insert little Roscoe into the mainstream consciousness, and the work she has done, Krienke said, to burnish her hometown.
"I have a picture in my office when she did a promotion for the library about reading books," Krienke said. "I'd love to get her to sign it. She did it about four years ago. She's in an Indy outfit and holding a book. Says above, 'Read.'
"She's done some nice things for different parts of her community. A lot of that goes unnoticed, I think."
Patrick and her younger sister, Brooke, were raised in Roscoe, where their parents, T.J. and Bev, owned at various times a coffee shop, a glass business and an oil exchange. Both sisters began racing about 30 miles away at Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wis., in what began as a family hobby.
The building across from the grade school that once housed the coffee shop sits empty now, but Bruce Carlson still remembers the June 2005 day when Patrick's father burst through the doors, "just beamin'." Patrick had gone from an extremely successful kart racer documented in the local papers to a worldwide media sensation after setting gender records by starting and finishing fourth as a rookie in the Indianapolis 500, becoming the first female driver to lead laps.
Patrick, who had begrudgingly worked the counter at the coffee shop as a kid, had become, Carlson reckoned, more famous than any athlete in that corner of the world at that time, other than Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre.
"[T.J. Patrick] came in and brought in the article when she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and it was kind of fun," Carlson recalled. "Those were good times because they still had real close ties to Roscoe and still lived a few miles from the coffee shop. I'd see him, if not every morning, every two or three mornings at the coffee shop."
Carlson, whose son was in Patrick's class, had paid attention to her career before it even became one. A female kart racer was unusual enough at the time. But when Patrick began racing regionally, nationally and eventually internationally by her freshman year -- accumulating reams of makeup schoolwork -- Carlson, the high school's technology director, was asked to design a page for the school district's website.
"I had the attendance officer call her into my office," Carlson said. "I think the first time I saw her she was in a cheerleader outfit. She walked in and introduced herself, and I told her we wanted to do something on the website about her. She was pretty surprised we even cared. She seemed to be flattered, even though she was starting to get some press.
"She came in a week later and had typed up this bio, which is now on this yellowed paper. We ran it verbatim on the website, and I put the picture in and it ran."
The sheet, which Carlson kept tucked in a folder for 16 years "just in case," was spiced with teenage giddiness and chocked with capitalized and exclamation-pointed emphasis. It also revealed the determination and calculation that has underpinned Patrick's methodical advance from Wisconsin karting prodigy to one of the most recognizable sports celebrities in the world.
"My short-term plans are to race in Europe this year, move on to cars next year and eventually make it to Indy cars one day!"
And that's what she did. Patrick's racing schedule became so all-encompassing that, according to her book "Danica -- Crossing the Line," she was removed from the cheerleading team. In 2006, she told the Indianapolis Star, "I missed a game. I was in France racing a go-kart."
After her junior year, she left high school to compete full time in the Formula Vauxhall developmental series in Europe, which eventually put her in place to be signed by Rahal Letterman Racing in 2002 and commence her open-wheel career.
A banner commemorating Patrick's time at Hononegah hangs in the "second gym" alongside that of Olympic gold-medal-winning figure skater Scott Hamilton, who studied there briefly. Nobody else even remotely as famous, Krienke said, has walked those halls.
Wielding the accomplishments of notable alums as motivation is common in high schools, but Patrick seemingly would be a tricky proposition, considering she made a very risky choice in leaving school to make her fortune in a competitive and unforgiving sport. But there is value in Patrick's path, Simpson said, especially since she succeeded.
"To her credit, she went on, she got her GED, and so she did put some importance on it," he said. "I just think some people who dream that big have to do things like that to reach their goals.
"I think you can look at it both ways. Obviously, everyone should have a backup plan, but at the same time, if you're going to be willing to dream that big, you've got to be willing to take some risks and know that not always do those risks work out.
"For her, it did," Simpson said. "I think that's something kids can learn from, too."
Maybe they'll talk about it tonight down by the Mobil station.