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Hot Wheels Auto racing phenom is ready for her close-up--and, soon, a shot at the Indy 500

Sept. 02, 2002
Sept. 02, 2002

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Sept. 2, 2002

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Hot Wheels Auto racing phenom is ready for her close-up--and, soon, a shot at the Indy 500

When Danica Patrick climbs out of her car, she turns heads. But
the 5'1", 100-pound brunette turns even more heads when she
drives that car--a 265-horsepower Reynard Dodge 98E--around the
tracks of the Barber Dodge Pro Series at speeds of more than 100
mph.

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 2002 issue

At first glance some fans might mistake the 20-year-old for a
trophy girl who ogles the winner in Victory Lane, but Patrick is
far from that. She's a serious racer who's out to prove she's
not the CART version of Anna Kournikova. By placing second in
the 2000 Formula Ford Festival at the Brands Hatch road course
near London, she finished higher in that race than any American
since Danny Sullivan in 1974. Then, after a third-place finish
(two spots ahead of Sarah Fischer, the Indy Racing League's top
female driver) at the Toyota Pro-Celebrity Race in Long Beach in
April, she caught the eye of Bobby Rahal, the '86 Indy 500
winner and three-time CART champion. Two months later he signed
Patrick to a three-year deal with Team Rahal. He says Patrick
has the ability not only to qualify for the Indy 500 but also to
win it.

Rahal entered Patrick in the Barber Dodge series, CART's
entry-level circuit. Through Sunday she had three top seven
finishes, and she just missed the podium in Vancouver on July
28, placing fourth. Patrick has become so popular that she
receives handmade bracelets from little girls and marriage
proposals from 35-year-old men. In a sport in which sponsorships
are key, she isn't reluctant to take advantage of both her
driving talent and her good looks--Team Rahal's p.r. material on
her looks like something out of Vogue. "You use what you have,"
she says. "I'm a girl, I can promote products, and I'll use that
to my advantage. But in the end it boils down to speed."

Before her race at the Mid-Ohio in Lexington on August 11, four
male college students jostled to stand next to her for a group
photo. After she left, they tossed around pickup lines in the
event that they bumped into her later. "You've been driving fast
all day, now let's take it slow," was one suggestion. "Are you
kidding?" said 21-year-old Ohio State senior Nick Drake. "Did you
feel that handshake? She'd kick my ass."

Patrick grew up in a man's world, and her father and racing
mentor, T.J., told her to grip as though she meant it. Patrick
races the way she shakes hands--aggressively. Her competitors
call her intense, but her mother, Bev, thinks what they really
mean is that she's a poor loser.

Although racing seemed predestined for Patrick--T.J. and Bev, then
a mechanic, met on a blind date at a snowmobile race--Danica
didn't always want to smell burning fuel for a living. "She was a
girlie girl," Bev says. "She didn't want to get grease under her
fingernails." But when she was 10 and living in Roscoe, Ill., her
family (she has a younger sister, Brooke) went go-karting. On
Danica's first drive, her brakes failed and she crashed head-on
into a concrete wall. She was hooked. Within two years she was a
go-karting national champion.

Patrick was also a cheerleader, but she was kicked off her high
school squad because she missed too many practices traveling to
England and France to watch go-karting championships and beating
such talented drivers as Sam Hornish Jr. (who would later win the
2001 IRL title) in races Stateside. Eager to focus on driving,
Danica left high school so she could compete in the Formula
Vauxhall Series in England at 16. (She has her GED.) She finished
ninth in the points standings in '99 but struggled with life off
the track--she wasn't happy sleeping on friends' couches and
living alone in a foreign country. "There are lots of talented
drivers, but few make the sacrifices that Danica has," Rahal
says. "That speaks volumes about her desire."

Next year Patrick will move up to CART's second tier, the Toyota
Atlantic series. Rahal says her racing instincts are outstanding
but that she needs experience before facing elite CART drivers
such as Michael Andretti and Cristiano da Matta. Patrick, for
one, has her sights set high. "I want people to say, 'Damn,
you're a good driver,' not 'Damn, you're a good female,'" she
says. "I know I'm the best chick."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PAUL CRAVE (2) HEAD TURNER Patrick isn't shy about her looks, but it was her driving skill that wowed Team Rahal.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY TEAM RAHAL [See caption above]