SHE COULDN'T FEEL the thrill. With her 100-lb. body encased in that formfitting cockpit in front of a rumbling 700-hp engine for nearly three hours, Danica Patrick couldn't feel much of anything. As she orbited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, she could see the white wall to her right, the pace car and black pavement ahead. Going into Turn 3, she looked up for a split second. People were standing. One or two waved. Beyond that glimpse, Patrick had little sense of the stir she was creating. With 28 laps to go in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, the rookie had taken the lead, and 300,000 people were on their feet.
What Patrick was doing wasn't merely historic: Before this afternoon, no woman had ever led the Indy 500, much less threatened to swig milk on Victory Lane. It was also, given the day she had endured, highly improbable. After starting fourth, she had run near the front all race--even taking the lead on Lap 56--until she stalled in the pits on Lap 79, a rookie mistake that dropped her to 16th. Patrick worked her way back to seventh before making another costly error on Lap 155. As the cars in front of her braked suddenly on a restart, she spun out, clipping Tomas Enge and damaging her front left wing and nose cone. She made a pit stop for repairs and pitted again four laps later for new tires and a last squirt of fuel, rejoining the race in ninth place with 41 laps to go.
Soon the real drama began. Under a yellow caution flag on Lap 172, the eight drivers in front of her pitted. Patrick's boss, Bobby Rahal, and her engineer, Ray Leto, had already made some calculations: She had enough fuel to make 24 or 25 laps under a green flag. Alas, there were 28 laps to go. To win, she'd need a well-timed caution period, allowing her to maintain position while conserving fuel. This race had already seen six yellow flags. Chances were, there would be more to come. "We're staying out," Leto told her over the radio. "Everyone say a prayer," she replied.
On the restart on Lap 174, Patrick roared away from the pack. If she could somehow stay in front until another yellow flag dropped, she might be able to seize the trophy. I know I'm fast, she thought to herself. I have the fastest car. I should win this race!
On Lap 186 she got her hoped-for yellow when Kosuke Matsuura scraped the wall between Turns 3 and 4, though Dan Wheldon had nosed a half second ahead of Patrick before the flag dropped. The caution lasted only three laps. Before the restart Patrick, mindful of her fuel issues, asked permission to use the overtake button on her steering wheel, triggering a full-fuel boost of power. "Absolutely," Leto said. Then he added, "You're going to need the restart of the century."
As the green flag dropped, Patrick hit the button and blew past Wheldon. She couldn't hear the delighted roar of the crowd, couldn't see the spectators swap high fives. Rocketing around the Brickyard at 225 mph, Patrick thought, A lot of people win their first race on fuel strategy. It can happen.
With seven laps left Patrick got word that Wheldon was on her inside. This time she didn't ask. She hit the overtake button. Her car jumped. Leto, who was hoping to save fuel for one last surge, admonished her: "Do not use the overtake button!" One lap later, Wheldon tried to steal the lead again. This time, Patrick let him. On Lap 195, Leto told her to turn down her fuel setting in order to save gas. "She was a sitting duck," said Patrick's father, T.J.
As Patrick trailed Wheldon, she turned philosophical. With the day I've had, she thought, I can live with second place. She didn't get to live with it for long. Soon Vitor Meira passed her. Then Bryan Herta did too. "I was angry," Patrick recalls. "I didn't want to fall back. But I realized it was more important to make it to the end under my own power than to run flat out in the lead or in second and then run out of fuel with a lap to go."
The field got a final yellow flag on Lap 199, five laps too late for Patrick. She passed under the yellow and checkered flags in fourth place. Freighted with unprecedented hype and expectation, she drove capably, made a stirring comeback and finished behind just three other drivers. Yet she was feeling, of all things, apologetic. "I lost the lead," she says. "I didn't win."
But when she emerged from her car into the scrum of her family and crew, she saw their tears and felt their emotion. They were thrilled. "My mood elevated then," says Patrick. "I guess I had done a good job."