But long before she raced into the spotlight, other female drivers were breaking barriers and dreaming of the big time – several of them in the Richmond area.
Among the champs was Melinda Rolfe, whose run ended two decades ago, but not before collecting her own bunch of firsts.
“I like going fast,” she explained. “I like the mental challenge of it . . . It was just the ultimate adrenaline rush.”
“When I got into racing late models (stock cars), I thought I was going all the way.”
There’s no doubt Patrick’s pole position win is a huge first, and a chance for the struggling NASCAR empire to cash in on the sex appeal and marketability of the driver who doubles as a model.
“She’s gorgeous,” Rolfe said. “She’s got all the right tools.” Along with being smart and a great driver, she said, “the brands out there want a certain look, they want to have somebody that is marketable.”
Melinda knows that’s not her – never was.
“I am very far from it,” she said. “I’m shy . . . ”
What she wasn’t shy about was winning. She started racing carts as seven. She drove so hard, it seemed like every weekend Elliott Sadler’s dad came over and tried to buy her go-cart engine.
“I grew up racing with a lot of guys who are in NASCAR now,” Melinda said. “Elliott Sadler, Hermie Sadler, Scott Riggs.”
When she switched to cars, the wins kept coming. Guys did not like it, saying girls shouldn’t be on the track or even working in the pits.
For her, it’s this simple: “When you put on a helmet and a suit and you strap yourself into a car, you’re a race car driver.”
She raced from Maryland to Florida, with emphasis on Virginia and North Carolina tracks – Langley, South Boston, Manassas, Kenly, and of course, Richmond’s gem, Southside Speedway. She has a scrap book of the headlines telling of her firsts. Among them, the first female track champion at Old Dominion Speedway.
Her father, Stuart Rolfe, kept her rolling. Her mother came to every race.
The end came 20 years ago. It wasn’t a bad crash – although she had some – but the cost, the wear and tear of nonstop racing – the lack of sponsors.
She has opened a tattoo and piercing shop on Forest Hill. She’s still a regular at Southside Speedway – in the stands.
And Melinda is pulling for Danica, hoping she’ll get a fair shake – to be treated as just another driver, not as a female target.
And as she watches, she can’t help but think that could’ve been her.
“People still say I could’ve.”