The Moment

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Danica Patrick, NASCAR Driver / Stewart-Haas Racing - The Players' Tribune

I remember the first time I flipped.

One lap to go.

I was leading.

We were coming into Turn 1 on the last lap of the big feature go-kart race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I was 12 years old. The kart trailing right behind me was being driven by my friend Sam Hornish Jr. Sam and I have raced together in NASCAR at the very same facility. But back then he was just my buddy Sam. We had pulled away from the 28 other karts in the race. It was just us racing for the checkered flag.

All of a sudden, I felt my kart get jolted from behind. Everything went into a tailspin. Sam had hit me and I slid off into the grass.

When you get hit you don’t have a lot of time to analyze what happened. In the split second after Sam rear-ended me, I could have thought about a lot of things.

I could have thought about Sam being my good friend.

How we would hang out in the so-called “Fun Van” every race weekend — one of those big, boxy vans that had a center console with a TV in the middle.

How we used to sit around with some McDonald’s listening to Adam Sandler’s comedy CDs, and how Sam would repeat every single line by heart. “The Longest Pee.” “Toll Booth Willie.” “Lunchlady Land.”

I could have thought, That’s your friend. He probably didn’t mean it.

But what I really thought was, Not today. It’s on.

When I came back onto the track, a switch in my brain flipped. Something really deep in my soul was telling me: You will not be messed with like that.

When we went into the last corner, Sam lifted. I didn’t. I was pedal-to-the-floor and I drove right over top of him. As in my go-kart was actually sitting on top of his back and head for a second.

And then I flipped. It probably looked bad. But the nice thing about flipping a race car is that everything happens so fast that by the time your brain says, Oh, shiiiiiiiit, it’s already over. There’s no time to be afraid. The adrenaline makes you too numb to feel anything.

I don’t remember being in pain. Sam took the brunt of it. When I got out of my kart, I saw my dad desperately sprinting toward me. He had been in the pits — way across the track. His feet couldn’t keep up with his emotions, so he tripped and barrel-rolled down the front straight.

I’ll never forget the look of fear on my dad’s face. I still had more races to run that day, and he was trying to tell me that I wasn’t invincible and that I could get hurt doing this stuff.

I was barely paying attention to him. My mind was still on Sam taking away my victory.

I remember not being scared. It wasn’t that I was in shock. I knew what was happening. But I was so passionate about not wanting to be pushed around that I just didn’t care what the repercussions might be.

I also remember that I had worn blue shoes that day. I’ve never worn blue shoes to a race again, and I never will.

Back then, the karts weighed 170 pounds and topped out at 45 mph. Now, my car weighs about 3,330 pounds and tops 200 mph. But the feeling is still exactly the same every time I strap in.

I will not be pushed around. I will not be intimidated. I’m not lifting.

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This story is part of the series Hero/Villain, created by Kobe Bryant, which explores how athletes use their darkest moments to create greatness.

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