It took the hottest driver at the Brickyard in a car set up by an Andretti to finally reel her in. But say this for Danica Patrick, who single-handedly injected the 89th running of the Indianapolis 500 with the sort of voltage it knew back in the day: The lady lived up to her hype.
For more than three hours on Sunday--from the time Indianapolis Motor Speedway chairman of the board Mari Hulman George intoned, "Lady and gentlemen, start your engines," to the moment British driver Dan Wheldon crossed the finish line under checkered and yellow caution flags--the 23-year-old Patrick gave the boys all they could handle until she had to back off for lack of fuel. She also gave the sea of 300,000 spectators what they were hoping to witness: history. No woman had ever led, never mind won, the Indy 500. Yet with just seven laps to go the 5'1", 100-pound package of marketing gold was ahead in auto racing's most storied race.
An improbable set of events had propelled her to that lead. Driving at times like the Indy 500 rookie she is, Patrick had nonetheless started impressively, holding the position in which she qualified, fourth, until stalling coming out of the pits (a show of inexperience) after 78 laps. That error dropped her to 16th place in an Indy field generally described as the deepest in 20 years. Employing patience and poise she worked her way back to seventh before making another mistake. After a caution followed by a restart on Lap 155, Patrick spun out at Turn 4 and bashed into the car driven by Tomas Enge, busting the nose cone and front wing of her Rahal Letterman Racing Panoz-Honda.
The mishap put the race under caution again and caused a trail of damage behind her. "Danica lost it in front of me," fumed South African Tomas Scheckter, who had to retire from the race after hitting the wall while swerving to avoid the carnage. "My teammate [Enge] got caught up in it, and I got caught up in it. She got it wrong on the restart, a little mistake but [one that had] big consequences for everybody else."
Patrick blamed the spin on Scott Sharp's slowing down in front of her. Still, she stayed calm and returned to the pits, where it took 60 seconds to replace the nose cone. Four laps later, still under the yellow flag, she pitted for 13 seconds to refuel and change all four tires. When Patrick returned to the track, now in ninth position, she had 41 laps remaining. Her only hope for victory was for another caution flag, which would allow her to conserve fuel and finish without making another pit stop.
"We decided to roll the dice," said 1986 Indy champion Bobby Rahal, who with Late Show host David Letterman co-owns Rahal Letterman Racing. "Danica gets really good fuel mileage, and I didn't think we were fast enough to pass all eight of those guys in the last 28 laps." When the eight cars ahead of her steered into the pits for a final refueling at Lap 172, the gamble temporarily paid off. Patrick kept driving, as did the racer directly behind her, eventual third-place finisher Bryan Herta, one of four contenders from the powerful Andretti Green Racing team. Suddenly, to the shock and delight of the Indy crowd, Patrick was in the lead for the first time since Lap 56, when she'd also benefited from the leaders making a pit stop.
Now it was a race against fuel consumption. Patrick held off her frantic pursuers with one smooth 225 mph lap after another, maintaining her lead while the Speedway fans worked themselves into a frenzy: 16 laps to go ... 15 ... 14 ... Only two questions remained to be answered. Could any of the cars in the field catch her? And would Patrick run out of gas?
The rest of the questions she had emphatically put to rest. Three other women had qualified for the Indy 500--Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher--and none had been considered a serious threat. The other racers not only acknowledged that the diminutive Patrick could win the race, but they also identified her as one of the favorites. Despite being an Indy rookie, she'd been among the fastest racers at the Speedway all month. Patrick qualified fourth (average speed: 227.004), even though she bobbled in Turn 1 during the first of her four qualifying laps. "She got pretty loose on that first lap and pulled it together," said Wheldon, winner of four of the first five races of the Indy Racing League (IRL) season. "Full marks to her."
On May 15 Patrick put up the fastest lap of the month, 229.880. Then, in the final practice session last Friday, with the cars set up as they would be on race day, Patrick was again the fastest car in the field. "I'm one of those people who feeds off negativity a little bit," she said in response to one of the endless, and often skeptical, media questions about whether she believed she could win one of the world's toughest races.
Certainly there was room for doubt. This would be only Patrick's fifth race driving Indy cars. She'd never raced 500 miles before. And it had been three years since her last win at any level--the Long Beach Grand Prix Pro/Celebrity event in 2002. Moreover, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a notoriously difficult track for rookies. It's narrow and the corners are only banked at nine degrees. Adding to the challenge, the event has the largest field of the year (33 cars). Patrick was uncowed. "I'm going to go out there and prove to you time and again that I belong here, that I will race up front, and that I'm a great driver and not just driving for a great team," she stated at a midweek media conference. "There's a ton of stuff I need to learn, but if I catch a break here and there, don't make any mistakes, yes, I think a rookie can win."
The media couldn't get enough. Leading up to the race, it was all Danica, all the time, which appeared to bemuse her fellow drivers rather than annoy them. Said Sam Hornish Jr., who led the race for 77 laps on Sunday (more than any other driver) before hitting the wall at Lap 147, "She's not just talented, but she's the best-looking racer we've had as well--not to make the women who went before her mad. She's a very marketable package."
Patrick's emergence as a media darling could not have come at a better time for the beleaguered IRL, which has seen its TV ratings plummet and its losses soar after a decadelong feud with open-wheel racing rival CART (now the Champ Car Circuit). Her presence fueled a 40% leap in the overnight Nielsens compared with 2004; the 6.6 rating was the highest overnight for the race since 1997 (7.6). And now officials from the competing open-wheel circuits are said to be in serious discussions about forging some sort of merger or truce, their only hope of countering the soaring appeal of NASCAR. "NASCAR isn't used to being put on the third page of USA Today," Rahal gloated after Patrick was featured on the front page of last Friday's special racing section. "Which means they'll probably be trying to hire Danica away from us." Fortunately for the Rahal Letterman team, it has Patrick under a multiyear contract.
She's even exceeded the expectations of Rahal. "We were just going for Rookie of the Year here," he said on the morning of race day. "Restarts will be a challenge for her. But she's surprised me this month, and I think she's going to surprise me today."
She did. Patrick's refusal to go away surprised a lot of people on Sunday, and in the end she had one final trick up her sleeve. At Lap 186 Wheldon, who'd put on a fresh set of tires during his final pit stop, finally nosed ahead of Patrick on the front stretch, just as the yellow flag unfurled after Japan's Kosuke Matsuura had brushed the outside retaining wall between Turns 3 and 4. This time the cars raced three more laps under caution, enabling Patrick to conserve enough fuel to ensure that she'd finish the race. As the 15 cars still running positioned themselves at the bottom of the homestretch for a final restart, with Wheldon leading the parade, Patrick strategically retreated to third, drafting, then blew past Wheldon as if his Dallara-Honda machine was running on cobblestones. It was the 26th lead change of the race.
"My engineer told me we had to have the restart of the century, and I think we had it," Patrick said later. "I thought for a second we were going to win this thing." Had another yellow flag come out in either of the next two laps, it could have happened. But Wheldon, whose car was running better than it had all afternoon, hung with Patrick and, with six laps to go, passed her for the final time on Turn 1. A native of Emberton, England, Wheldon became the first British driver to win the race since Graham Hill in 1966, and in doing so he handed team owner Michael Andretti his first Indy win.
"It's the one race that totally eluded me as a driver," said a relieved Andretti, who failed in 14 starts at the Speedway. "I never tasted milk so good," he said after quaffing the traditional bottle in Victory Lane. "No more talk of this stupid curse. That's dead."
What's very much alive is the future of Indy Car racing. Patrick, who had to throttle down to conserve fuel, was passed by two more cars before finishing fourth under the yellow flag. But her point had been made. "If I could have run full fuel...." she said afterward. "We'll never know. But I'd like to think we could have maybe won it."
You can bet a bottle of milk on that.