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Forget the Hype
May 19, 2008
Danica Patrick has been racing for 17 tough years and now faces the strongest 500 field in a generation. But she believes this is her time
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May 19, 2008

Forget The Hype

Danica Patrick has been racing for 17 tough years and now faces the strongest 500 field in a generation. But she believes this is her time

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WATCHING DANICA Patrick stride through the adoring throngs surrounding pit lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Saturday afternoon—five state troopers clearing the way, little girls crying out to her and grown men shouting wedding proposals—it was easy to think that she's already reached the pinnacle. In the Age of Celebrity, Patrick (or simply Danica to everyone in the crowd) doesn't have to win to be a winner. She's a 5'2", 100-pound bundle of marketing gold, just riding the wave of her own celebrity. ¶ But look closer. Patrick is now on a top team, she's piloting the fastest car of her life, and she's already won once this year. On April 20 in Motegi, Japan, Patrick became the first female driver in IndyCar history to win a race. It wasn't a fluke. Patrick drives for Andretti Green Racing, a powerhouse team that has won three of the last four IndyCar Series championships. She's currently fifth in the season points standings, and she's here in Indy on business—business that has nothing to do with flashing her smile for the cameras. After all, Indy is American racing's grandest stage, and the best crop of young open-wheel drivers in a generation is here to make a run for the pole. No one is more determined than she is.

Already she has shown the kind of mettle and resilience it takes to win a season title—not to mention the Indy 500. Last Friday, as she drove into her pit stall during practice, her left front tire struck Charles Buckman, a mechanic on a rival team. Buckman cartwheeled over Patrick's car, his head banging on the pavement; he suffered a fractured skull and facial lacerations but is expected to recover fully. The incident, which everyone who witnessed it agrees was not her fault, gave Patrick a sleepless night—"I kept thinking about his family," she says—but it didn't blunt her focus on Saturday. After briefly seizing the pole early in the day with a mistake-free run, Patrick settled for a solid fifth-place starting spot for the 500.

Afterward, Patrick sat on her pit wall and assessed her chances for winning on May 25. "I like where I'm starting," she said. "I'll get faster in the next few days in practice and be ready to go on race day. I really, really like my chances. And man, how huge would it be if I could win the thing?"

How about this huge: It would be one of the most significant events in the history of motor sports in this country. Her victory in Japan would pale in comparison. Statistically the Brickyard is one of Patrick's best tracks; as a rookie in 2005 she led the 500 for 19 laps and ended up in fourth place. But that finish was deceiving. With nine laps left Patrick was in the lead and pulling away from the field, when under instructions from her pit she backed off the throttle to conserve fuel, allowing three cars to pass. A few months ago, however, Patrick learned that she had 2.5 gallons of gas left at the end of the race. That 500 was hers to win. "Not going for the victory in '05 is the single greatest regret of my life," says Patrick. "I promise you I won't ever do that again. This year I'm going for the win, no matter what."

HER CAREER began with a bang—literally. Her father, who owned a small commercial glass business in Rockford, Ill., had raced snowmobiles and midget cars in his younger days, and he instilled the thrill of speed into his daughters Danica and Brooke, buying each a go-kart when Danica was nine and Brooke seven. On a cold March day T.J. set up a makeshift oval by placing empty paint cans around the parking lot outside his business. Danica, wearing a helmet and winter coat, took off first. Moments later her brakes failed, and she crashed head-on at 25 mph into a concrete wall next to T.J.'s shop. Danica's body slammed hard into her steering column, and she slumped over, her head smacking the ground as her coat caught on fire. My God, thought T.J., I've killed my daughter.

But she wasn't seriously hurt; instead, she was hooked. "Danica just couldn't wait to start racing," says T.J. "I made a rule that if she was going to do this, she had to learn something every time she went onto the track. She had to learn how to tune her own carburetor and understand things like when her tires were going bad, what lines she needed to take and when she needed to brake. She caught on quick."

T.J. started taking Danica and Brooke to the track. Racing karts against men twice their age, the Patrick girls struggled to keep pace even on the parade laps. One afternoon Brooke was wrecked four times by overzealous drivers, and that was enough. She quit. "I was like, I don't want this anymore," says Brooke, who is now studying to become a physical therapist. "But Danica was different."

A ball of fire since she was a toddler, Danica displayed a similar gung-ho style on the racetrack. When she was 13, during an event on the go-kart track at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, she was in second place behind Sam Hornish Jr.—who would go on to win three IndyCar titles and the '06 Indy 500—as the two charged into the final turn. Hornish lifted off the gas; Patrick didn't. She drove straight over Hornish's rear bumper, up his back, and was launched into the air. They both crashed, but a message was sent that to this day Hornish still remembers: Danica does not back down.

"I was totally going for the win," says Patrick. "I was going to get it or crash trying.... I think I scared the boys, including Sam."

Patrick's heavy foot, along with off-the-charts hand-eye-foot coordination, helped her set track records for her age at Sugar River Raceway in Brodhead, Wis., and at Michiana Raceway Park in Buchanan, Mich. Whenever she won, her dad would phone the sports editor at the Rockford Register Star and tell him of his daughter's exploits, which usually would appear in the paper the next day. Slowly, the name of this petite racer was spreading across the Midwest. She was invited to meet Lyn St. James, who in 1992 became the first woman to win the Indy 500 rookie of the year award, in St. James's box at the '96 Indy 500. A year later at the Brickyard, St. James introduced the Patricks to John Mecom III, an heir to a prominent Texas oil family and a racing backer. Mecom offered to sponsor Danica in England's Formula Vauxhall series, which features vehicles that are similar to Indy cars but have no wing. "You'll learn more over there in one year than you will in five in the States," Patrick remembers Mecom telling her.

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