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Forget the Hype

May 19, 2008
May 19, 2008

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May 19, 2008

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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

WATCHING DANICAPatrick stride through the adoring throngs surrounding pit lane at theIndianapolis Motor Speedway last Saturday afternoon—five state troopersclearing the way, little girls crying out to her and grown men shouting weddingproposals—it was easy to think that she's already reached the pinnacle. In theAge of Celebrity, Patrick (or simply Danica to everyone in the crowd) doesn'thave to win to be a winner. She's a 5'2", 100-pound bundle of marketinggold, just riding the wave of her own celebrity. ¬∂ But look closer. Patrick isnow on a top team, she's piloting the fastest car of her life, and she'salready won once this year. On April 20 in Motegi, Japan, Patrick became thefirst 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 threeof the last four IndyCar Series championships. She's currently fifth in theseason points standings, and she's here in Indy on business—business that hasnothing to do with flashing her smile for the cameras. After all, Indy isAmerican racing's grandest stage, and the best crop of young open-wheel driversin a generation is here to make a run for the pole. No one is more determinedthan she is.

This is an article from the May 19, 2008 issue

Already she hasshown the kind of mettle and resilience it takes to win a season title—not tomention the Indy 500. Last Friday, as she drove into her pit stall duringpractice, her left front tire struck Charles Buckman, a mechanic on a rivalteam. Buckman cartwheeled over Patrick's car, his head banging on the pavement;he suffered a fractured skull and facial lacerations but is expected to recoverfully. The incident, which everyone who witnessed it agrees was not her fault,gave Patrick a sleepless night—"I kept thinking about his family," shesays—but it didn't blunt her focus on Saturday. After briefly seizing the poleearly in the day with a mistake-free run, Patrick settled for a solidfifth-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 nextfew days in practice and be ready to go on race day. I really, really like mychances. And man, how huge would it be if I could win the thing?"

How about thishuge: It would be one of the most significant events in the history of motorsports in this country. Her victory in Japan would pale in comparison.Statistically the Brickyard is one of Patrick's best tracks; as a rookie in2005 she led the 500 for 19 laps and ended up in fourth place. But that finishwas deceiving. With nine laps left Patrick was in the lead and pulling awayfrom the field, when under instructions from her pit she backed off thethrottle 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 therace. That 500 was hers to win. "Not going for the victory in '05 is thesingle greatest regret of my life," says Patrick. "I promise you Iwon't ever do that again. This year I'm going for the win, no matterwhat."

HER CAREER beganwith a bang—literally. Her father, who owned a small commercial glass businessin 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 Marchday T.J. set up a makeshift oval by placing empty paint cans around the parkinglot outside his business. Danica, wearing a helmet and winter coat, took offfirst. Moments later her brakes failed, and she crashed head-on at 25 mph intoa concrete wall next to T.J.'s shop. Danica's body slammed hard into hersteering column, and she slumped over, her head smacking the ground as her coatcaught on fire. My God, thought T.J., I've killed my daughter.

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick acceptedthe offer, and at 16 she quit high school and flew overseas for the first time.At the airport to see her off, her family cried their eyes out; Danica didn'tshed a tear.

IT WASN'T an easytime for her, though. Renting space on the living room couch of a woman wholived in Milton Keynes, England, she quickly developed a severe case ofhomesickness. Worse, at every track on which Patrick raced, she was slow. Shefelt that she received the worst equipment and the worst crew chief her teamhad to offer (several people interviewed for this story agreed with thisassessment), and this further dampened her spirits. Trying to fit in with themale drivers from England, Australia, South Africa, France and Germany,Patrick, the only female in the series, did what they did: headed to the pubsseveral nights a week. By her own admission Patrick sometimes drank too much,and she gained weight. Rumors swirled that she was a party girl and notdedicated to racing, and eventually this scuttlebutt reached the ears of Mecom,who stopped funding Patrick after one season. "I wasn't doing anythingdifferent than the guys were," Patrick says, "but because I was a girl,people started talking."

With no financialbacking, Patrick persuaded her dad to underwrite her career, promising tocurtail her bar time. She spent two more unremarkable years in England, oftencrying over the phone to her family deep into the night. She came home in thesummer of 2001. "We basically were out of money," says T.J., "andit was looking like it was over."

Still, Danica andT.J. began attending Indy races, following the circuit from stop to stop in'01. Danica would beg every owner in the garage for a chance, but no one in theleague bit. Feeling sorry for the Patricks, owner Bobby Rahal, who had metDanica in England, let them hang out in his hospitality area whenever they weretrackside. Then, before a race in Milwaukee in June '02, Patrick once morepopped the question to him: Will you let me drive for you?

"I said,'O.K., I'll sign you to a three-year deal,'" recalls Rahal. "My teamthought I was crazy. But in this business you need a person to take a chance onyou. I was not confident that she would succeed, but I thought there was achance."

In 2004, drivingfor Rahal in the Toyota Atlantic Series—the Triple A of IndyCar—Patrick had 10top fives in 12 races and wound up third in the final standings. Rahal elevatedher to his IndyCar team the following season, but aside from her impressivefourth in the 500, Patrick struggled, failing to crack the top three in anyrace. Rival drivers would tell you, while safely off the record, that she wasall style and no substance, and when she wrecked because of an aggressive move,you could often hear comments like, Well, it must be that time of themonth.

"As a woman,if you don't perform, you'll never be accepted here," says Sarah Fisher,who has made 67 IndyCar starts. "But now Danica is in the best equipmentyou can get, so she's set up to succeed."

After the 2006season Patrick moved to Andretti Green Racing. AGR has as many resources as anyteam in the series, and its drivers are famous for sharing information witheach other, which is commonplace in NASCAR but rare in IndyCar. It's this kindof teamwork that makes the AGR trio of Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andrettithe favorites to win this year's 500.

"Danica hasas good a shot as anyone," says Helio Castroneves, a two-time 500 championwho drives for Team Penske. "She no longer overdrives her car. If her caris bad, she won't push it and wreck. But if her car is good, she'll geteverything she can out of it. She's really grown."

THE IMPROMPTUparty began soon after Singapore Airlines flight SQ12 lifted off from Tokyo'sNarita International Airport on the evening of April 20. Up in business class,on her way back to Phoenix, where she lives with her husband, Paul Hospenthal,Patrick, her parents and rival drivers Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon toastedPatrick's victory earlier that day. On the plane the pineapple juice and vodkasflowed as the revelers enjoyed themselves so thoroughly that the flightattendants eventually cut them off—the one time all weekend that Patrick wasslowed.

What hasn'tslowed since then is the momentum that IndyCar has gained from Patrick's win.The next week at Kansas Speedway, Patrick became the first driver in serieshistory to sell six figures' worth of merchandise in a weekend. "Danica'swin," says Terry Angstadt, president of IndyCar's commercial division,"was bigger than we even hoped. If she can win the 500, well, it's hard toimagine just how large the impact would be."

Right now,racing's marketing dream has just finished dinner outside her motor home, andshe's sliding into a golf cart parked nearby. "Hold on," she tells apassenger, "this is the fastest cart in all of Indy."

Patrick peelsaway into the darkness. She spots a large swath of grass in the infield and,with an impish grin, begins spinning the cart around in the empty field, apicture of unrestrained joy. This is where Danica Patrick is happiest: At Indy,driving, straddling that thin line between control and chaos, safety anddanger. On May 25, she will be doing it again—for the highest stakes.

Patrick, who backed off in the closing laps of herfirst 500, says, "This year I'm going for the win, no matter what."
"I was going to get [the victory] or crashtrying," says Patrick of her karting days. "I think I SCARED THEBOYS."

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WHAT'S NEXT?

Read Lars Anderson on Danica Patrick's future inracing and her thoughts on a possible move to NASCAR.

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From the Pole

After the first day of qualifying, the front rows areset for the May 25 Indianapolis 500, and the sport's three powerhouse teams,Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Green Racing, lead thefield. Here comes the most competitive Indy in years

STARTING POSITION, DRIVER, NATIONALITY, TEAM

1. Scott Dixon New Zealand, Ganassi
Dixon, an 11-time winner on the IndyCar circuit, is the driver to beat; butkeep in mind that 72 of the race's 91 pole sitters haven't finished first.

2. Dan Wheldon Great Britain, Ganassi
The '05 Indy 500 winner, Wheldon has finished fourth or better in three of thepast four years. He's coming off a win at Kansas Speedway on April 27.

3. Ryan Briscoe Australia, Penske
Briscoe, who moved to Penske this season, piloted mediocre equipment to afifth-place finish in last year's 500; now he'll have stronger support.

4. Helio Castroneves Brazil, Penske
A two-time 500 champion—and recent Dancing with the Stars winner—theirrepressible Castroneves has all the moves to win at Indy.

5. Danica Patrick U.S., Andretti Green
Look for Patrick to pit out of sequence early to try to win the race on fuelmileage strategy—just as she did in Japan in April.

6. Tony Kanaan Brazil, Andretti Green
In his six starts at Indy, Kanaan has led in every race, for a total of 202laps—but never won. This could be the year he gets it right.

7. Marco Andretti U.S., Andretti Green
Team owner Michael's son—and Mario's grandson—has been near or at the top ofthe speed charts in every practice; he was second in the 500 in '06.

8. Vitor Meira Brazil, Panther Racing
The lone outsider among the Big Three bunch, Meira has four straight top 10s atIndy, including a second in 2005. Experience will keep him in the hunt.

9. Hideki Mutoh Japan, Andretti Green
The highest qualifying rookie, Mutoh took over the number 27 car at AGR when2007 Indy 500 and series champ Dario Franchitti bolted to NASCAR.

PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyTRACK STAR Patrick, who led for 19 laps and finished a surprising fourth in her first Indy 500, in 2005, considers the Brickyard one of her favorite places to race.PHOTOSIMON BRUTYWINNING VISION Since coming to Andretti Green Racing in '07, Patrick has benefited from having a top car and a sharing team.PHOTOCARS: GEOFF MILLER/REUTERS (DIXON)POLEPHOTOTOM STRATTMAN/AP (WHELDON)2PHOTOGAVIN LAWRENCE/GETTY IMAGES (BRISCOE)3PHOTOGAVIN LAWRENCE/GETTY IMAGES (CASTRONEVES)4PHOTOGAVIN LAWRENCE/GETTY IMAGES (PATRICK)5PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (KANAAN)6PHOTOGAVIN LAWRENCE/GETTY IMAGES (ANDRETTI)7PHOTOROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES (MEIRA)8PHOTOGAVIN LAWRENCE/GETTY IMAGES (MUTOH)9NINE PHOTOSDRIVERS: APPHOTOCOURTESY OF THE PATRICK FAMILYFIRST GEAR At 13, Patrick was already a veteran kart racer—and building a reputation as a fast and fierce competitor.