Danica PatrickDanica Patrick is the most successful female racecar driver in the history of the sport. She competed in the IndyCar series from 2005 to 2011, winning numerous races and placing as high as third in the Indianapolis 500, and finishing in 5th place overall in 2009. She began racing in the NASCAR series in 2010, and in 2011 announced she would be switching to NASCAR full time. 

Danica is also a spokeswoman for DRIVE4COPD, an awareness group working to help educate the public on the dangers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Danica talked with us about why she got involved.

You’re obviously very involved in raising COPD awareness. What is your personal connection to COPD?

My grandmother passed away from emphysema complications. Emphysema is a type of COPD.

I remember when I was a kid, I’d always notice how the “old” people were always coughing. Did you notice your grandmother’s condition growing up?

I remember her coughing. She was a smoker. I remember her getting out of breath, and then getting on oxygen a little bit at first and then in the end for 24 hours a day. But, also, I started to notice the progression most when I was gone—I was in England a few years racing, and I didn’t get to see it progress. It was a good thing in some ways but overall it was more of a bad thing. I realize now that it was time I lost that I can’t get back. 

Once she got worse, I realized that there was no way to hear grandma’s old stories about my dad anymore. It was just gone.

What was it like when you came back from racing in England?

Well, I was back in the States living at home for the end.

I remember I was at a test for a bomber dash pro series. I was doing my big test to decide whether I could do it, and how much of it; if I was going to be any good at it, and whether I had the strength right then to do such a long run and to do it well.

The thing I remember about the test was hearing that my grandmother died. It was extremely difficult.

Did your grandmother ever quit smoking?

She did quit. She quit around 1980, about 20 years before she died. I’m sure she must have been smoking from a young age, since around 20.

Did you ever smoke?

No.

I was born in 1985, started smoking around 14-15, and it was 8 years before I quit. It’s been an incredible different since, though. 

Started to get that smoker’s voice, probably?

Yeah, that, and hocking up disgusting phlegm every morning.

So, you can imagine how hard it would be for a smoker to recognize the signs of COPD, which is coughing up phlegm.

Right. I read that COPD is the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S.— why do you think people don’t consider it as great of a health threat as, say, breast cancer or diabetes?

I think there’s a lack of awareness because the signs and symptoms are thought of as ordinary, like coughing—it’s like ‘who cares, grandma and grandpa are getting old, of course they’re going to cough,’ but that’s not normal, and neither is coughing up phlegm or getting out of breath from doing ordinary things. It’s easy to write off by thinking you are just getting out of breath because you don’t work out as much anymore. It’s easy to overlook, and the disease ends up getting a grip on you and by that time it’s too late—people wait until the end to do anything, when the disease is really affecting their lives and is, unfortunately, not going to get any better. It’s a progressive disease with no cure—but it’s invisible; you can’t see it.

It may also be that people may feel responsible or even embarrassed by it because the leading cause is smoking. People also think it’s no big deal—they don’t realize that they’re not going to be able to breathe one day, but that is what’s going to happen and it’s going to be too late.

It’s important to recognize COPD as a risk in general first.

Yes, DRIVE4COPD.com has a five question screener—it’s a simple way to get some insight as to whether you might be at risk.

Danica PatrickHow has the campaign gone since you started?

It’s been really incredible. It started off at the DRIVE4COPD 300, the NASCAR Nationwide race at Daytona last year. The ambassadors, Patty Loveless and myself, are still around, and Billy Ray Cyrus joined us this year. We had a goal last year of screening 1 million people on drive4copd.com—and we accomplished that steep goal. We have an even bigger goal this year, and I think we’re on track—2.1 million people now have been screened. These are great things.

What is your ultimate personal goal in working with DRIVE4COPD?

Long-term, the goal is to get it so COPD is NOT the 4th leading cause of death in the country. I want it far lower down the list.

It’s going to take time to turn the ship because the people who are sick right now, its not like we can do something and they’ll be all better all of a sudden. Change is going to have to come from being proactive from an early age and an early point in the disease. It’s going to be a matter of sticking with it and being optimistic about not solving things today, but in a few years, down the road, being able to make some change.

Any events coming up?

The COPD screening truck goes to NASCAR races and outdoor fairs and events, so they’re always cruising around getting people screened. We also just ran a cool competition with Billy Ray and Patty, along with the Country Music Association (CMA). People sent in lyrics and a music video featuring a COPD-inspired song, and the winner got to perform in the CMA Music Festival.

There’s also an artist Michael Kalish that put together [a project] called 24M—“24” [representing] the 24 million people suffering from COPD, and “M” for monument. It’s a sculpture using 2,400 license plates to honor those suffering from COPD. That was just unveiled in New York in September.

And of course November is COPD Awareness Month. What advice would you give people about COPD?

Number one: take charge of your health. Take the screener and learn more.