Bruce Martin
Sunday April 20th, 2008

In some ways, it was kind of appropriate that Danica Patrick's historic victory came when it was least expected, on the other side of the earth at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on a race that was televised on ESPN Classic.

Not only was her IndyCar victory an "Instant Classic" but the accomplishment was of international significance -- something special that could be shared on more than one continent.

Even though her victory may have been in secret, televised by an obscure cable channel best known for televising Cheap Seats and past episodes of the World Series of Poker, news of her victory will help transcend IndyCar Racing back to the mainstream of sports.

It is yet another sign of the positive vibe this form of racing has been feeling since unification at the end of February. Prior to that, IndyCar Racing had become the "Redheaded Stepchild" of the sporting world, relegated to the back pages of the sports sections when it was embroiled in an open-wheel civil war, first with CART and recently with CART's successor, Champ Car.

But when the sport of IndyCar racing became whole again, with Champ Car ceasing operation and many of its teams joining IndyCar, the sport was back and relevant again.

First it was Graham Rahal winning the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg two weeks ago, becoming the youngest IndyCar winner in history at 19.

But that accomplishment may pale in social significance to what Patrick did on a cold, overcast day 65 miles northeast of Tokyo -- a race that had been postponed earlier Saturday because of a wet track and rescheduled for 10 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

Patrick is now more famous for her racing skill than for her stunning beauty that graced the pages of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition.

"It's been a long time coming," a tearful Patrick said in victory lane. "Finally."

The weight is off the diminutive Patrick's shoulders.

Barely tipping the scales at 100 pounds, there were drivers who believed she had a weight advantage in a sport where victories often are measured in tenths, hundredths and even thousandths of a second, a speeding race car will go faster with a lighter load.

So IndyCar officials instituted a driver/car weight rule this season, similar to what nearly every other racing series utilizes.

On Sunday in Japan, it didn't matter because Patrick's Andretti Green Racing team played the fuel strategy game perfectly. She saved fuel early in her final run while the other drivers in front of her either had to pit for a splash of Ethanol in the closing laps, or get off the throttle like Helio Castroneves had to do with three laps to go.

That played perfectly into Patrick's plan as she sped by Castroneves with two laps to go, drove to the checkered flag and into history as the first woman ever to win a race in a major closed-course racing series.

"I can't say the last stint was exactly hard," Patrick said. "I was taking it easy and going fast but still trying to save fuel. All I had to beat was Helio and I knew I had been saving fuel earlier in the stint. I didn't want to make the mistake of not trying harder to get by him.

"Finally."

It was T.J. and Bev Patrick of Roscoe, Ill., that saw talent in his young driver when she was racing go-karts as a youngster, beating the big boys when she was just a kid.

T.J. Patrick, a glazier by trade, invested in his young daughter and it finally paid off in America's most extreme form of racing.

"This is the best day of my life," T.J. said. "I've dreamt about it. I'm so proud of her. For all the grief she has gotten over it, she proved she can win races and she is going to win a lot more."

Danica's husband, Paul Hospenthal, is a professional physical therapist who works with athletes in MLB, professional tennis and golf.

"Female aside, she's just a hard competitor," Hospenthal said. "She never asked to be the female in the male sport; she just wants to work hard. With any race car driver, coming to the lead and winning like this and showing a little patience is fantastic."

At times, that patience was tested. For the first 49 races of her career, she was constantly hounded by the questions, "When are you going to win a race?" or "Are you ever going to win a race?" She became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 and was in front with seven laps to go before fading to a fourth-place finish that year.

But in her 50th start, Patrick finally answered those questions and lived up to her billing off the track.

"I'm so happy for her, so proud of her," said team owner Michael Andretti. "It's always been a matter of when, not if when she was going to win. I'm so proud of her the way she did it. She stuck to her numbers and her speed. I love this girl. I'm so happy for her the monkey is off her back.

"There will be more of this to come."

She is now a person of sociological significance. She represents the same hope to female race drivers that Jackie Robinson represented to African-Americans when he broke the color-barrier in Major League Baseball.

And while Shirley Muldowney, Ashley Force and Melanie Troxel are race-winners in drag racing, their battles are usually one-on-one against another competitor and the clock. Patrick's victory came on a 1½-mile oval against 17 other drivers as the IndyCar Series was split for the final time with the Champ Car Series teams participating in Sunday's Long Beach Grand Prix.

"It was a matter of everything coming together," Patrick said. "I knew this is how it would feel."

There was Patrick, standing on the top rung of the podium, just a few inches above America's dancing king, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves who finished second by 5.8594 seconds.

And while Janet Guthrie was the real pioneer by becoming the first female ever to race in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977, there would be others that would follow including Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher and even Milka Duno.

But Patrick is the first to actually win an IndyCar race, posing next to a trophy that was nearly as big as she is at 5-feet.

It's the size of that victory, however, that is immeasurable to the IndyCar Series and the sporting world.

Move over Maureen Connelly (first woman to win the tennis Grand Slam), Billy Jean King, Julie Krone (first jockey to win a Triple Crown race) and Pat Summitt because Patrick has just joined the Mount Rushmore of female sporting accomplishments.

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