It wasn't only the 20-by-40-foot replica of her SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover portrait painted on the Texas Motor Speedway marquee that made 23-year-old Danica Patrick appear larger than life last week. It was the swarm of media that chronicled the IRL rookie's every move in the days leading up to the Bombardier Learjet 500, Patrick's first race since her historic fourth-place finish at the Indianapolis 500 on May 29. ("4:30 p.m. Danica lands" The Dallas Morning News reported in last Thursday's editions.) It was the proliferation of Danicalia on eBay. (The mangled left wing of her Indy 500 car, extracted from fellow rookie Tomas Enge's car after they collided in the race, was auctioned, for charity, and went for $42,650.)
And it was the sudden leap of faith made by rabid IRL fans, like 32-year-old Chad Allen of Rowlett, Texas. As he stood in 93° heat with 499 others who had obtained special wristbands for a Patrick autograph session outside an Arlington bowling alley on Wednesday, Allen carried a copy of SI's June 6 issue with Patrick's picture on the cover, a poster-size version of that cover and an Indy 500 banner signed by several race champions. "Only Indy winners sign this banner," Allen said. "But I'm thinking of having her sign it now. That way, when she wins it next year, I won't have to stand in line again."
The Danica phenomenon wasn't a hurricane, as one reporter suggested. It was more like a total eclipse. By Saturday afternoon the media neglect of the 21 other racers was so pervasive and comical that 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice and '05 runner-up Vitor Meira arrived at the drivers' prerace meeting wearing T-shirts that read, respectively, DANICA'S TEAMMATE and DANICA'S OTHER TEAMMATE. This year's Indy champ, Dan Wheldon, wore a T-shirt that proclaimed, I ACTUALLY "WON" THE INDY 500. Everyone chuckled, but after the drivers were introduced to the estimated crowd of 102,000, guess who the GoVision camera followed as she sprinted to the infield for one last prerace pit stop of her own?
Once the race started, however, fans and media were reminded that this series is indeed a competition, not a coronation, and Patrick, for all her poise and promise, is still a rookie. Unlike at Indy, where she had a month to get accustomed to the track, Patrick had only two days to practice at Texas Motor Speedway--an intimidating, high-banked 1 1/2-mile quadoval, where no IRL rookie has won in the event's nine-year history--and it showed. Though she started third, she quickly fell back in the pack and appeared tentative navigating the tight traffic for which the track is well-known. She finished 13th, the last car on the lead lap.
"Yeah, I'm disappointed," said Patrick. "But I'm not an idiot. I know it takes time to learn things. That's why I have these three shiny yellow lines [symbolizing a first-year driver] on my car."
Tomas Scheckter, who held off Sam Hornish Jr. to win by .0534 of a second, knows how elusive IRL victories can be. Saturday's win, from the pole, was his first in almost three years. Scheckter had been running well at Indy before he and three other drivers were knocked out of the race when Patrick spun out during a caution. "A comeback with a pole and then a victory is unbelievable," said Schekter.
Patrick doesn't doubt that she will make her own comeback. "I'm racing against guys who have been going around for years and years," she said. "That's hard to compete with. But I've done it before--and I'll do it again."
Though Danica Patrick has yet to win a race, her average finish in her first six Indy Racing League events stacks up well against such averages of the past five IRL champions.