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Danica Patrick is the next racing phenom

SUNDAY DRIVER -

July 17, 2005|by JASON STEIN/ Wheelbase Communications

In the bags of mail that criss-cross their way every day around the country, here's a bet that this kind of letter doesn't roll into the trackside administration office at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway very often.

"Danica Patrick," read the address on a recent delivery. "Race Car Driver. Indianapolis, IN."

How do you know you've arrived? When your fans don't even mess with details like home addresses or zip codes (and the letter still gets to you).

They go straight for Victory Lane.

If you don't know who Danica Patrick is, buckle up. You're about to find out.

Patrick is the racing world's next phenom. Some longtime racing critics are already calling her the greatest woman to ever drive an open-wheel car. And those are the understated guesses.

With dark, flowing hair and a slender 5-foot-2 frame, she's a hot commodity at Indy. And she hasn't even turned 24 yet.

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"There's definitely been a lot of fan response and media response," Patrick said during a recent teleconference in preparation for the Indianapolis 500 that took place in May. "I think it's just really flattering. And I think it's what the sport needs."

In no time flat, Patrick has created her own media frenzy. She has been on the front page of every major metropolitan newspaper, been interviewed by every influential talk show and - oh, by the way - posted the fastest qualifying speed of any woman who has driven at Indianapolis. Only one split-second wiggle on the steering wheel kept her from becoming the first woman ever to win the pole for Indy.

"An itty-bitty gust of wind," she called it after her qualifying run placed her fourth - which just happened to be how she finished the race - Patrick seems destined to take this kind of ride.

Her father was a motorcross and snowmobile racer who met Danica's mother at a snowmobile race on a blind date.

"Very much a racing family," Danica said.

She was raised in Roscoe, Ill., a suburb of Rockford that sits near the Wisconsin state line, and began bumping go-karts with Indy Racing League driver Sam Hornish Jr., when Patrick was 12 and he was 15.

Hornish tells the story of trying to pass her once in a race, only to have Patrick block him and cause a collision. Her kart went off the track. His stayed on. When Patrick returned to the race, "she went into the last corner and drove right over the top of me," Hornish recently told the Chicago Tribune. "She went upside down. It took us both out."

Clearly, the spirit was there.

By 15, Danica was a go-kart champion and was already drawing the interest of racing executives at Ford Motor Company and racing legend Jackie Stewart. They all had a suggestion: try the European racing leagues.

So in 1998, at 16, and just a junior in high school, Danica left Illinois and went to Europe. Alone.

It was an experience she describes as "tough on the soul."

"I remember my mom and dad when I was leaving at the airport and they were starting to get choked up.

"My dad said, 'I couldn't imagine you not having this opportunity.'"

T.J. Patrick had another message for his daughter: "Go get 'em."

She did. But it wasn't easy.

Danica tells the story of trying to make it in a tough environment where she was rarely respected and rarely had the best equipment. Without a lot of financial backing, the job got even tougher. But she eventually caught the eye of longtime racer and car owner Bobby Rahal, who quickly saw the potential.

"It was a very hostile environment," Rahal said recently. "But what was most impressive was the fact that she did it alone and she did very well."

After two years in England, Patrick finally had a decent car and things began to turn around. Rahal was convinced. He brought her back to the United States and signed her to a contract.

After a few impressive years in the Toyota Atlantic series, the minor leagues of open-wheel racing, Patrick moved up to the Indy Racing League this season.

"She has proved everywhere else that she's the first woman who can mix it up," Rahal told the Tribune.

After her fourth-place qualifying run, she attracted loads of attention from every angle. In this wild, male-dominated sport, gender is always a hot topic. It's one of the reasons CNN wants to talk to her. And one of the reasons NBC's "Today Show" is interested.

Patrick just takes all the gender questions in stride.

"People are excited for it and they like to see something new and something fresh and something they've never seen before," she said. But, "as I've heard (race driver) Lyn St. James say before, 'The car does not know the difference.'"

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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