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Indianapolis 500

Wheels burning, turning for Patrick

Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan (center), and Marco Andretti sign autographs before yesterday's meeting of the drivers. Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan (center), and Marco Andretti sign autographs before yesterday's meeting of the drivers. (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / May 25, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS - There was no squealing of tires. No climbing of fences. No overwrought displays of exuberance.

No, Danica Patrick decided long ago she was going to have none of that when she finally celebrated the first IndyCar Series race of her career.

"I don't want to make mistakes and look stupid," she said. "I'll just leave it to the race victory."

And so, when she made history as the first woman to win a major auto racing event with her triumph in the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi April 20, Patrick finally let down her raven hair.

She allowed the emotions that had been welling for the better part of three winless seasons - the first two with Rahal Letterman Racing before she left for greener pastures at Andretti Green Racing - to come flowing out when she was greeted on pit road by her mother, Bev, and dissolved into tears.

While she always took pride in being as tough as her male counterparts on the track, Patrick revealed herself, in that poignant moment, to be as vulnerable as she was at age 16 when she left home in Roscoe, Ill., and set out for England to begin the serious pursuit of a racing career.

"I was a little surprised," Patrick said of her reaction. "I was a little surprised I cried."

But her tears weren't born so much from the sheer joy of winning as they were her defiance of the skeptics who doubted that she ever would win.

"It wasn't because of the win on the track," Patrick said. "It was because of how many times I had to answer to you guys - when I'm going to win and do you feel like it's going to happen and blah, blah, blah.

"That's where the real emotion came from. I wasn't surprised to win. I mean, I expected to."

Those expectations have not changed since her arrival here for today's 92d running of the Indianapolis 500. In fact, now that she has won a race, they've been heightened.

"Her chances are as good as mine," said Tony Kanaan, Patrick's sage teammate at Andretti Green Racing who, along with Penske Racing driver Helio Castroneves, will flank her on Row 2 of the 33-car grid for the start of the race.

"She can drive an oversteer car, which this place kind of likes," Kanaan said. "It's not very physical, which she gets hurt by when we go to a street course or road course. Here, she's equal to us."

Although she listed a runner-up finish in the 2000 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, England, and a pole victory that led to a second-place finish in a 2004 Toyota Atlantic Series race at Portland, Ore., as her biggest career highlights, Patrick added another to her growing résumé in 2005 when she made a splash in her Indy 500 debut with Rahal Letterman Racing.

Danica Mania seemed to grip the fabled Brickyard from the moment Patrick arrived. She was first to take to the track during rookie orientation and wound up fastest among her peers. The suffocating media attention grew to a fever pitch after she led 19 laps late in the race - the first woman in race history to lead - and she ended up fourth.

But now, with a win under her belt, Patrick has her sights set on becoming the first woman to win the Indy 500.

"It's something I've always wanted to do, it's a goal," Patrick said. "It's really one of the few times that I've put a 'girl' into my vocabulary, like, 'Yes, it would be nice to be the first woman to do that, it would be great.'

"Other than that, you know, I'm just not any different as a driver. I don't feel any different. I'm not any more or less nervous. It doesn't really change that."

The breakthrough

So what has changed since winning at Motegi, which was her 50th IndyCar start?

"It's changed the outside," she said, "and the media, and the endorsements, and sponsorship, and fan attention. That's the kind of stuff that changes as a result."

Indy Racing League officials, though, were prepared for the eventuality Patrick would win her first race this season.

"We felt confident that she would, just because she's that talented and she's with a good team, and we all know what that means," said Terry Angstadt, president of IRL's commercial division. "I think part of her winning in Japan extended the afterlife, because a lot of media outlets felt like, 'Hey, no one got her live.'

"If you watched, she was on every morning show, two of the late-night shows, 'The View,' MTV, radio interviews . . . I mean, she worked her tail off."

The interest didn't wane after Patrick went to her next race at Kansas and started third but finished 19th, dropping out with 156 laps completed because of mechanical problems.

"If she would've won at Kansas, yeah, it was live TV and it was in the US and it was historic and all that," Angstadt said, "but a couple of days later, I think it would've tailed [off] a bit.

"For that entire week, it was every paper, every network, and, literally, up to and including Indy. It's the news. It's the story. What it reinforces to everyone was that it was a historic moment. For women to be able to compete as athletes with men, that's the story."

As for the residual effects of her win in the garage area?

"I don't think she got more accepted, because she already was," Kanaan said. "For sure, with her race win under her belt, we respect her more now, but I haven't seen anybody disrespecting her or not accepting her."

Indy dreams

With so much attention directed her way, is there any resentment of Patrick among her fellow drivers, male and female?

"I'm sure people could be bugged about it," Kanaan said. "But I don't really mind. I'm in racing to win races, I'm not in racing to be famous. I think that's the same position she is in, but she draws more attention and it's obvious why.

"If I had to jump into a sport where it was only women and I happened to be the only guy, I'd be drawing more attention, too.

"Some guys probably do get jealous, but it's reality, guys. Let's face it, she's big. She does good for the sport. And she brings a lot of fans to the sport."

Kanaan paused, then added with a laugh, "I want her to bring fans to the sport - and then I'll steal them."

Winning at Motegi has not satiated Patrick's desire. After spending so much time here this month, she admitted she has allowed herself to daydream about winning the Indy 500.

"Of course, it's the Indy 500," she said. "We definitely sleep plenty of nights at this track and spend enough time here that the things I imagine are Victory Lane and drinking milk and the whole extravaganza right afterwards. But what happens after that? It's different for everyone and there's no way to tell how big it will be or what exactly will come as a result.

"But I think it has to happen before you ever know."

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com

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