By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008
INDIANAPOLIS, May 22 -- Danica Patrick answered the critics and gave fans another reason to root for her when she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race last month.
The historic victory also has amplified expectations for Patrick, open-wheel racing's most popular driver, as the circuit prepares for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. The question no longer is whether she can win a race, but if she can win the biggest one of them all.
"I'm very confident," she said Thursday. "There's no reason why I can't win this race at all."
Patrick is among a small group of drivers backed by top teams expected to battle for the checkered flag in the 92nd running at the Brickyard. The 26-year old qualified fifth in her No. 7 Andretti Green Racing racecar, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway suits both her driving style and 5-foot-2, 100-pound frame.
"It's not very physical," driver Tony Kanaan said of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile, mostly flat racing surface. "Sometimes she has problems when we are on a street course or a road course [because] it's a lot more physical than this track."
Here, though, "she is equal to us," said Kanaan, who also is Patrick's teammate and friend.
Patrick proved that in 2005, when as a rookie she challenged for the win after taking a late lead. But she was forced to conserve fuel in the waning laps and wound up fourth, the best finish for a woman in the race's history.
Last month, the competition had fuel issues, paving the way for her to take the checkered flag at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. After race leaders Kanaan and Dan Wheldon were forced to the pits to refuel, Patrick overtook Helio Castroneves on Lap 198 of 200 and sped into the history books.
"I was a little surprised I cried," Patrick recalled. "But it wasn't because of the win on the track. It was because how many times did I have to answer: 'When am I going to win? Do you feel like it's going to happen? Blah, blah, blah.' That's where the real emotion came from.
"I wasn't surprised to win. I expect to."
Before Patrick had unpacked from Japan, she was off on a whirlwind media tour that included appearances on CNN and ESPN, dozens of radio interviews and the David Letterman and Conan O'Brien talk shows.
"I'm very tired," Patrick conceded. "But with the way we came into this month, with the win, if someone would have told me, 'You're not going to get tired this month, everything is going to be under control.' I would have said: 'Hmmm. I should have tried a little harder.' "
All of the attention is nothing new for Patrick, who through the years has graced the covers of several national magazines, including Sports Illustrated last week. But it's definitely been intensified the past four weeks.
Patrick's popularity is on display everywhere in Indianapolis. On Wednesday, fans lined up in the plaza adjacent to the garage to get autographs from their favorite drivers.
There were three lines for Patrick, one of which snaked its way across the plaza, extending several hundred feet. Fifty feet away, a dozen or so fans waited for autographs from drivers Davey Hamilton and Jeff Simmons.
Patrick arrived fashionably late, emerging from behind a tinted glass door wearing dark sunglasses. She smiled and waved to her legion of fans, a diverse group that included young girls, teenage boys, middle-age men and their wives.
She was greeted with an enthusiastic round of applause and screams of "Danica!"
"If she attracts more attention, I think it's obvious why," Kanaan said. "Some guys get jealous. But it's reality. She's big. She's good for the sport."
Then he cracked, "I want her to bring fans [so] I can steal them from her."
Securing a victory Sunday would not only benefit Patrick, it would also be a boon for the IndyCar Series, which appears to be on the rebound since reunifying with ChampCar in February. Sunday's race will mark the first time all of America's top open-wheel teams will compete at the Brickyard since 1995.
"Indy defines every racer's career," said Terry Angstadt, president of IndyCar's commercial division. "It's our biggest stage, in front of a worldwide audience. To have a female win, that would be absolutely massive for us."
Patrick's victory last month is proof of how closely the circuit's success is linked to her own. Television ratings for IndyCar's race in Kansas the following week improved 173 percent from last year. Patrick's merchandise sales also surpassed $100,000 in Kansas, and are up 700 percent over last year's figures, according to the league.
The win hasn't changed Patrick's approach on the track, she said.
"I'm not any different as a driver," Patrick said. "I don't feel any different. I'm not any more or less nervous. What it does change is the outside [perception] and the media, and endorsements and sponsorships and fan attention."
But the attention Patrick is getting now is nothing compared with what would await her if she wins Sunday.
"The things I imagine are Victory Lane and drinking the milk and the whole extravaganza right afterwards," Patrick said when asked if she has daydreamed about winning the 500. "There's no way to tell how big it will be or what exactly will come as a result. It has to happen first."