First of All, It's Patrick -- at Last

Danica Patrick enjoys the spoils of victory after triumphing in her 50th start, in her fourth Indy Racing League season.
Danica Patrick enjoys the spoils of victory after triumphing in her 50th start, in her fourth Indy Racing League season. "It's a first. Firsts are always in history books," she said. (Jonathan Ferrey - Getty Images)
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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008

As a young woman competing in the male-dominated world of auto racing, Danica Patrick says she tried not to dwell too much on her sex -- except in one respect. From the outset she dreamed of becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar race.

Yesterday she did just that, out-dueling Helio Castroneves in a gamble of fuel mileage to win the Indy Japan 300.

Patrick's victory took place halfway around the world and a half-day removed from a live American television audience. But its effects are likely to be far-reaching, boosting interest in U.S.-based open-wheel racing, which has taken a back seat to NASCAR during the past decade, and debunking the growing assertion that Patrick was more hype than substance.

Regardless, with the victory, the 26-year-old Patrick achieved what racing pioneers such as Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James did not in previous decades: steer an Indy Car into Victory Lane and unabashedly shed tears of joy.

"It's going to be one of those things that's remembered," Patrick told a packed room of reporters last night in Long Beach, Calif., after a long flight from Tokyo. "It's a first. Firsts are always in history books. I've always hoped and wanted to be that person -- to be the first female to win in history."

Reared in Illinois, Patrick was 10 when she started racing go-karts under her father's supervision. At 16 she moved to England to hone her skills in open-wheel racing, with a dream of one day competing in the Indianapolis 500.

Patrick made her Indy 500 debut in 2005, and a circus erupted after she nearly won the pole with a blistering qualifying lap. The frenzy, dubbed "Danica-mania," followed her throughout the run-up to the race, in which she became the first woman to lead the famed 500-miler. She finished fourth and won rookie of the year honors.

Patrick's petite frame was suddenly everywhere, it seemed. Barely 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, she became a media heavyweight overnight. She was featured in music videos and on daytime talk shows. And corporate sponsors such as Motorola, Video Professor and climbed aboard.

But after she failed to win a race her first three seasons, comparisons with Anna Kournikova followed, with critics sniping that Patrick was simply the motorsports equivalent of the Russian tennis beauty -- blessed with looks, riches, fame and not a trophy of consequence to show for it.

Patrick only fueled such talk by trading on her looks in a way that Guthrie and St. James had not.

Most provocatively, she had posed for an FHM magazine spread before landing her IndyCar ride that featured her splayed across the hood of a '57 Chevy in a black cutout swimsuit and stiletto heels and draped between the Chevy's tailfins in boots, hot pants and a red leather lace-up bustier.

Still winless, she launched the 2008 racing season with a more tasteful photo spread in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, with an unzipped, blue Motorola racing suit draped around her thighs to reveal a white bikini.

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