Week in and week out, Danica Patrick — amidst a throng of good ol’ boys not particularly known for their manners — wheels a 3,000-pound stock car with grit and determination. Beating and banging for every inch of space on the racetrack, the 33-year-old continues to prove why she is motorsport’s most accomplished female driver.
Earlier this year, Patrick set the record for the most top-10 finishes of any female in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition with a total of six. She’s tough, a fact that is well documented, so rouse her ire at your own risk. Patrick is not afraid to put the theoretical chrome horn to competitors when they cross her line.
That said, you might be surprised to know what brings this superstar to her knees.
“I’m a worried dog mom … I’m really worried about the dogs all the time,” admits Patrick, whose kryptonite comes in the form of two endearing pups named Dallas and Ella. With 80 pounds between the two, the young dogs keep this race car driver busy and ever vigilant. “I’m always making sure they’re both OK.”
Dallas, the eldest female, came to Patrick and boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., also a NASCAR driver, by way of a breeder in North Carolina. He wanted a big dog, she wanted a small dog. As a result, on Mother’s Day 2014 the couple brought home a miniature Siberian Husky with ocean-blue eyes capable of melting the coldest of black hearts. Brains and brawn just like her mama — and she enjoys celebrity status just like her mama, too. Dallas Stenhouse has nearly 6,000 followers on Twitter and her own plushy sold online, with proceeds going to animal charities.
Second on the grid but certainly winning favor in her mother’s heart for pole position is Ella, mama’s little shadow.
“Ella will follow me even if I just take five steps somewhere,” Patrick said. “She gets up to follow me. I’m sure some day she will learn that she doesn’t have to, but for now she follows me like a puppy.”
Acclimated to the pack in September, Ella is a 6-month-old Belgian Malinois with ears that could pick up sound from space. Patrick was coerced, in a manner of speaking, by her dog trainer to take on the added responsibility.
“Ella was kind of just one of those things where I was going to take her to play with Dallas for a couple nights, and of course when you love dogs … I never brought her back,” Patrick said, explaining how she adopted the dog.
It happens to the best of us, as dog lovers can sympathize. Still, bringing a dog into your family is pressure even for the average household, so understand that it’s doubly hard for a NASCAR driver who races 36 weekends out of the year and often zigzags the country making sponsorship appearances.
“For months before we decided to get Dallas, we kept imagining at any point and time, ‘What would our dog be doing now?’ so that we could decide if we could handle it, because it’s hard to know for sure when you travel that much if you could have a place for a dog,” Patrick explained. “Once there was always an answer for it, then we got her. She was the planned child.”
As for Ella, the “accident,” she’s a gem, as everyone at Dogs By Andy in Mooresville, North Carolina, will tell you. It is where both Dallas and Ella receive their rigorous and extremely customized obedience and life-skills training.
It’s customized because it has to fit the NASCAR world — most dogs aren’t spending life at a racetrack where the roar of military flyovers are regular as church on Sunday and the rumble of 850-horsepower engines fire so close you can feel the vibration in your feet.
There are no safe sidewalks or potty spots in a NASCAR garage. There are, however, rowdy race fans carousing during the day and jarring fireworks that pop off in the infield at night. Imagine what that might be like for a dog who more or less learns everything about her surroundings through her ears and nose.
“The training has to be at a level that is bulletproof,” said Andy Hanellin, Patrick’s dog trainer and president of Dogs By Andy. Hanellin, a trainer for many celebs in the area, touts 30 years of experience, much of which involves law enforcement and protection dogs. “Dallas and Ella have to be sound and secure dogs who are well behaved in all situations. These dogs are her kids.”
When it’s time to go racing, the specialized training keeps both dogs safe and Patrick sane.
“If Danica is riding around in a golf cart and has to stop suddenly to sign autographs for a mob of NASCAR fans, she needs to know that Dallas will stay put,” Hanellin explained. “If Danica says ‘place,’ Dallas won’t move a muscle.”
Golf carts aren’t the only challenges. Riding in mom’s private jet versus the family car is still an adjustment for Dallas. Meanwhile, Ella is working to perfect her off-leash obedience and visiting shopping centers to adjust to large crowds. And helicopter rides could be in both their futures, as NASCAR drivers often “chopper in” to avoid traffic into the racetrack. Anything is possible when you’re living life in the fast lane.
“It’s a life that requires a level of training that goes even well beyond what services dogs are required to do,” Hanellin said.
Furthermore, both pups must be very foot aware, Hanellin added, which is necessary for navigating the different surfaces and various vehicles Ella and Dallas board, including the motorhome in which they reside on the weekends.
Although, if you ask the dogs, the refinements and trappings of mom’s posh apartment on wheels don’t make up for lack of square feet and, umm … grass. It’s a concrete jungle in the makeshift parking lot where NASCAR drivers park their motorhomes.
“You have to walk them to the grass, no matter where that is, which is good because they need the exercise as the bus isn’t very big,” Patrick said.
Don’t pity these pups, though, as they are plenty pampered. Patrick spares no expense when it comes to the health and well-being of her dogs. They may appear buttoned up at the track, but they kick back when at home in Charlotte, North Carolina, or Scottsdale, Arizona.
“I love to wake up and have them in bed and come give me kisses. Dallas likes to crawl under the covers, and I think that’s really cute … like at any point during the day, she’ll just go sleep under there,” Patrick said. “And during the day, I like to take them for walks.”
She adores her dogs, and like most dog moms Patrick prefers the girls to be with her on the road rather than in a kennel. Both parties benefit.
“When I have a bad day on track, they don’t know it,” she said. “So, sometimes it takes your mind off it.”
Patrick admits the dogs have changed her. They’ve amplified this professional athlete’s sacrificial side despite the enormity of her brand and ever-demanding racing career.
“I’d say having them has made me less selfish,” she said. “Because you have to put them first.”
Words and perspective from truly a great — and worried — dog mom.
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About the author: Raygan Swan is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom who loves to write about her adventures raising a young boy and one neurotic, pushy English Springer Spaniel under one roof. In sharing her anecdotes and experiences, Swan hopes to enlighten and educate families who strive for harmony among their two-legged and four-legged children. In addition, she likes to compete in agility trials with her springer as well as kayak and hike. She lives north of Indianapolis and can be found at facebook.com/rayganswan.