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On the Fast Track in Professional Racing

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Over the years, many famous people have called the Rock River Valley home, and now the Rockford area has become a hotbed for producing some of the brightest stars in the sport of auto racing. Among locals who’ve found career success: Driver Danica Patrick, pit crew chief Chad Knaus and ESPN journalist Nicole Briscoe. While all have traveled far beyond their hometown region, each still holds fond memories of the place they once called home.

Growing Up Danica

Most parents dream that their child will one day leave an indelible mark on the world. Danica Patrick’s parents were no different.

“I knew when she was 10 that she’d make a difference,” recalls her father, TJ Patrick. “If I told her to tune the carburetor at a certain temperature, she knew how to do that. Most 10-year-olds just go out there and drive around as fast as they can. The first year she raced, every time she went out there she got faster until she broke the track record.”

“TJ said, ‘She’s going to change racing some day,’” says Danica’s mom, Bev.

And that she has.

Danica, 28, is one of the most celebrated auto racers to get behind the wheel of a race car. She was named Rookie of the Year for both the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and the 2005 IndyCar Series season. Two years ago, she became the first woman to win an IndyCar Series race when she won the Indy Japan 300. She placed third in the 2009 Indianapolis 500, which was both a personal best for her at the track and the highest finish by a woman in the event’s history.

This year, Danica finished second in a Texas IndyCar race, and began racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. “I always knew I would be able to be big if given a chance, with the right car and the right support,” Danica tells Northwest Quarterly Magazine. “There are many things that came afterward that I didn’t plan on. Most of it is just icing on the cake.”

Danica with proud parents Bev and TJ Patrick.

Not only is she one of the most competitive drivers in a male-dominated sport, but Danica also possesses qualities that transcend the racing industry. Racing fan or not, chances are you know who she is. She’s been named as the favorite female athlete for the 2008 Kids Choice Awards, and she was voted the sexiest athlete on the Victoria’s Secret “What is Sexy” list. With the looks of a high-profile model, ample sex appeal and an affable, yet no-nonsense personality that captivates fans and corporate sponsors alike, Danica appears to have it all.

“She’s always had that charisma,” says TJ, who calls his 5-foot-2 offspring a ‘freak of nature’ because of the traits that separate her from most people – unwavering commitment to conditioning, relentless determination to succeed, and a fearless attitude when maneuvering a 3,400-pound piece of machinery at 220 miles per hour around an oval racetrack.

And Danica can be found at every turn. Her face is plastered on billboards. She’s graced the covers of several popular magazines, been a guest on late-night talk shows and appeared in dozens of commercials, promoting everything from deodorant to telephone service. She’s donned a white mustache as part of a ‘Got Milk’ ad campaign. She was named to TIME magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people. Google her name and 2.76 million results will pop up.

The home base for Danica’s meteoric rise is the small town of Roscoe, Ill., where she and Brooke, her younger sister, were raised by TJ and Bev. Today, Danica and husband Paul Hospenthal call Phoenix their home, but she carries with her fond memories of a childhood spent in northern Illinois. “I remember being part of a great community,” she says. “It was a good place to grow up.”

Bev and TJ Patrick met on a snowmobile racetrack in North Dakota. Bev was a mechanic from Minnesota, there to help a friend who was racing, and TJ was a competitive racer from South Beloit, Ill. They hit it off immediately, dating for one-and-a-half years before settling down in Roscoe and getting married in 1980. Two years later, Danica was born, followed by Brooke in 1984.

As a child, Danica led the life of a typical child. She enjoyed cheerleading, playing musical instruments, playing various sports and spending time with family and friends. But it was racing that got her engine going.

“I think the thing that stands out most from my youth was that we used to travel around the area going to local go-kart tracks to compete,” she says. “I remember riding my bike around the block, but sometimes I would ride my go-kart around the block as well. I don’t think the neighbors really liked that, because the Roscoe police would usually show up soon after.”

Paul Hospenthal, Danica’s husband

Sister Brooke, a physical therapist now living in Indianapolis, was the first to try go-kart racing, but she lacked the aggressive nature needed to race and stepped away after a month. Danica was up next and instantly became hooked. She was good, winning several races against older boys. “She liked to intimidate them,” TJ says. “She was never afraid of contact.”

As Danica got more involved, her racing schedule took the family all over the country. Summer vacations were spent in the car, with Danica’s racing equipment in tow, from California to Florida. Some families might not have been so committed. “The decision was easy, because we enjoyed it,” TJ says. “We always went together, all four of us, every weekend.”

“When we were on the road, we were all together playing games, talking and spending time with one another,” Danica says. “We really got to know each other because of all the time we spent together, and that was the point. I am so lucky to be so close to my family. My family provided a support structure for me not only when I was at home, but also when I was away from home.”

In order to advance her racing career, Danica moved to England when she was 16, where she won several World Karting Association Championships. It was a difficult decision to send their young daughter so far away for three years, but one the Patricks felt they had to make. “You learn from everything, whether it was good or bad,” Bev says. “England was very tough for her, very lonely, very difficult, but it made her strong, even more determined and focused. Every hardship she went through made her stronger. We were lucky to have a tight-knit family.”

These days, the Patricks don’t see their eldest daughter as much as they’d like, given her demanding schedule. From traveling from race to race, to fulfilling numerous media requests, to handling business obligations, Danica’s time is very seldom her own.

The family members talk by phone, text each other and hug when they see each other on race day. When they do find family time, mostly on holidays, they embrace the same things they did when the girls were growing up. When Danica comes home, she likes to cook and watch comedy movies, including her favorite, “Tommy Boy.”

“We do anything but talk racing,” Bev says. “We live that every other day of the year.”

TJ predicts his daughter will race at least another 10 years, and that she’ll win her share of big races. Danica has similar goals. “I want to be remembered as a great race-car driver,” she says. “I strive to make sure that I’m constantly learning and becoming a better driver every day. And I want to win an Indianapolis 500.”

And to think it all started on a small go-kart track right here in our own backyard.

“At the time I was just having fun, and fortunately I ended up being able to make a career out of it,” Danica says. “I’m lucky that I’m able to make a living by doing something that I love.”

In the Pits with Chad Knaus

Chad Knaus

Casual observers of racing are familiar with the sport’s biggest names, drivers such as Danica Patrick, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, to name a few. But one of the biggest names in the business doesn’t sit behind the wheel at all during a race.

He’s Rockford native Chad Knaus, the crew chief for Johnson’s race team. The 39-year-old is in charge of everything that goes on in the pit during a race. And he’s good at his job. In 2008, Knaus celebrated a record-breaking season, becoming the first crew chief in NASCAR’s 60-year history to win three consecutive Sprint Cup Series Championships.

Knaus’ life has changed dramatically since his humble beginnings in Rockford. “Things were tough growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money,” he says. “I’m fortunate to make a great living in a job I adore.”

By making history in 2008, Knaus and Johnson are, arguably, one of the best driver/crew chief teams in racing. Knaus has more wins in his Sprint Cup Series career than any other crew chief. The 40 victories he and Johnson have collected in their seven seasons together are 11 more than any other team during that time. And he and Johnson get along well both on and off the track. “We’re very open with one another,” he says. “We’re great friends and enjoy hanging out with each other; it’s a unique relationship.”

Knaus’ rise to the top of racing started in Rockford. By the time he was 14, he served as the chief mechanic for his father, John, during races at the Rockford Speedway, where the older Knaus eventually won the championship. The father-son duo went on to many more wins across the Midwest, competing against top racers including Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Dick Trickle. John won the NASCAR Great Northern Series championship and finished second in the Winston Racing Series. “It was a neat way for my father and me to bond,” says Knaus, who gave up his own aspirations of driving, in order to concentrate on his father’s success. “My dad called the shots and I was the mechanic.”

A winning team: Crew chief Chad Knaus and driver Jimmie Johnson.

Knaus wasted no time pursuing his dream. A week after graduating from Jefferson High School, he left for the Southeast, which is considered the hotbed of racing. He moved to North Carolina, where he makes his home today outside of Charlotte. Knaus, who is single, appreciates the area’s beautiful lakes and access to the mountains and ocean. “I love it down here,” he says.

As the crew chief, it’s up to Knaus to decide when to bring the car in off of the track for a pit stop or when to keep going. He oversees all of the members of his crew and the jobs that need to be done. Most importantly, he knows every aspect of the race car. “I’m not the smartest guy on the team,” Knaus says. “But I take the input of my team and we make it better. We know what’s best.”

Along with success, Knaus has experienced plenty of scrutiny throughout his career. He’s been fined and suspended more than once for illegal adjustments made to Johnson’s car during races. The criticism doesn’t faze the Rockford native. “I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” he says. “I focus on what we need to do. It’s a challenge to get the team ready. NASCAR doesn’t agree with what we do. But we feel we don’t do blatant things. That stuff happens. It’s the nature of the sport.”

Knaus has no plans to give up his crew chief duties. But he does have options down the road, in racing management, ownership or media work, which he dabbles in now by providing television commentary. Knaus also appears in television commercials and lends his voice as the crew chief in several NASCAR video games.

Things have worked out well for the quiet kid from Rockford, who always found solitude under the hood of a car.

“To think of a young man going from the garages at the Rockford Speedway to getting an opportunity to go national is unbelievable,” he says. “It was a lofty goal when I left. People didn’t agree, and said I couldn’t make it. To be able to get here and be successful in my own right has been really nice. Racing has been really good to me and I enjoy it every single day.”

The News About Nicole Briscoe

Nicole Briscoe

Roscoe native Nicole (Manske) Briscoe didn’t know the first thing about racing when she accepted a television reporting job in Indianapolis six years ago. In fact, she had never been to a race before in her life.

But that all changed when she stepped foot on the track at the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. “When I came here and actually saw it with my own eyes, I completely fell in love with everything about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” she says. “This place is amazing.”

And now racing is her business. The 30-year-old Briscoe is the host of “NASCAR Now,” a daily program that airs on ESPN2, which covers all things NASCAR.

A former Miss Illinois Teen USA, Briscoe graduated in 1998 from Hononegah High School and got her start in TV in Rockford, when she interned at WREX 13 while attending Northern Illinois University. The station eventually hired her as a production assistant and weekend weather anchor and reporter. The experience also provided Briscoe with valuable training as she worked her way through the ranks, ultimately landing at a national sports programming network.

“Everything I learned came from working with anchors Eric Wilson and Heather Pick, and news director Maggie Hradecky,” she says. “The experience at WREX was, hands down, the most invaluable thing I ever did.”

In 2001, Briscoe left Rockford for a TV job at a Ft. Wayne, Ind., station, before landing in Indianapolis three years later. During that time, she covered a variety of sporting events and teams besides the Indy 500, including the United States Grand Prix, the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, and the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. She was also a pit reporter for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network at the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 as well as IndyCar race broadcasts before joining the SPEED Channel, a Charlotte, N.C.-based cable network devoted to racing coverage, in 2006. Two years later, she joined ESPN.

Briscoe and her husband, IndyCar driver Ryan Briscoe, make their home in North Carolina. Ryan, who finished third in the 2009 IndyCar series, beat Roscoe native Danica Patrick earlier this year at the Firestone 550K in Texas, for his first win of the season.

When the Briscoes aren’t at the track, they enjoy spending time at home, water skiing, gardening and cooking. “You have to get away, you have to not talk about it,” Briscoe says of their duo racing careers. “We have an understanding of what each other does and the stress level that goes with each job. It’s a good balance.”

Briscoe has interviewed some of the sport’s biggest names, including Rockford’s Chad Knaus and Danica Patrick. “Danica has put herself in a position to be the face of the sport,” Briscoe says. “She’s brought a lot of attention to the IndyCar series and that’s important. What Chad’s been able to do is absolutely astonishing. Look at what he and Jimmie Johnson have done – not just one year or two years, but four years in a row. Four straight championships, are you kidding me? That’s a Hall of Famer right there.”

But her biggest thrill came during an interview in the backyard of the White House with President Barack Obama, an assignment that she learned about on a phone call from her boss during a trip to a furniture store with Ryan. “I sat down on a bed frame and had tears in my eyes,” she says. “It was overwhelming and it was cool.” Unfortunately, Briscoe says, the President doesn’t know much about racing.

That’s OK. At one point, neither did she.

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