- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

INDIANAPOLIS — Danica Patrick knew she could hang with the boys.

She nearly beat them at the Indianapolis 500.

Patrick overcame a couple of rookie mistakes yesterday to finish fourth, the strongest showing for a woman in the race’s 89-year history and a thrilling performance that restored some luster to the storied event.

Nearly all of the 300,000 fans were standing and waving their arms when Patrick grabbed the lead on a restart with only 10 laps to go. For a fleeting moment, the 23-year-old driver had visions of sipping milk in Victory Lane.

“Sure, I thought about it,” Patrick conceded.

But she had to conserve fuel to make it to the end and couldn’t hold off winner Dan Wheldon. Teammate Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta also got past before the race finished under yellow, the result of a crash with a lap to go.

“If we could have run with a full fuel load, you never know,” Patrick said. “I’d like to think I could have won it. But we had to sacrifice somewhere to come from where we were.”

Patrick came to Indianapolis this month recognized more for her looks than her racing. She gained plenty of notoriety when she posed in a bikini for a men’s magazine, but there were plenty of skeptics questioning whether she could run up front.

Not anymore.

“This just shows what she’s made of,” said her mother, Bev Patrick. “She had to overcome plenty of obstacles with the stigma of the male-female thing.”

Patrick had to overcome plenty of obstacles in yesterday’s race — two of them the sort of miscues rookies tend to make at the Indy 500.

First, after starting fourth and becoming the first woman to lead a lap at Indy, Patrick stalled her car in the pits, knocking her from fourth to 16th.

She worked her way back to seventh, then had another embarrassing mistake during a caution with 45 laps to go. Patrick was revving her engine to take green when her No. 16 car suddenly swerved to the right between the third and fourth turns, colliding with Tomas Enge and sending Tomas Scheckter spinning into the wall.

“I’m sorry,” Patrick told her crew over the radio.

As it turned out, the crash helped her get to the front.

Patrick managed to get the car straightened out and limped back to the pits with her left wing and nose cone sheared off by the crash. The Rahal Letterman crew quickly repaired the damage, getting her back out still on the lead lap. She returned to the pits a second time under yellow, getting a full tank of fuel and four new tires.

“Gosh, did I make mistakes,” Patrick said. “I can’t believe my car wasn’t completely demolished because I got hit like twice. I spun around and can’t believe I kept the engine running.”

Patrick took the lead on lap 172 when everyone in front of her pitted and her crew gambled she could make it to the end of the 200-lap race. But she couldn’t run at full power, getting passed by Wheldon just as Kosuke Matsuura crashed behind them on lap 186.

That actually put Patrick in the most favorable position for the restart, and she stormed past Wheldon on the front straightaway. Again, the crowd erupted in a frenzy.

“Keep looking forward, keep looking forward,” Patrick’s crew chief told her over the radio.

Patrick guarded the lead until lap 194, but there was no holding off Wheldon. He has been the strongest driver on the circuit all year, winning for the fourth time in five races.

In the pits, Patrick’s mother buried her face in her hands when she realized her daughter wouldn’t win the race on her first try. But Patrick sounded absolutely elated after she took the checkered flag.

“With all the … stuff that happened, I’m so happy for you guys. Way to go,” she radioed to her crew. “We were so close to winning that race. Woooo, hoooo!”

Talk show icon David Letterman, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing, watched the race from the pits. He won the 500 last year with Buddy Rice, and he certainly feels he has a future winner in Patrick.

“I don’t know how she did it,” Mr. Letterman said. “Boy, she’s not 23 years old. She’s no kid. I don’t know how you have all that misfortune befall you and still come back to almost win the race.”

The Indy 500 has dipped in popularity over the last decade, harmed by a split in open-wheel racing and NASCAR’s surging popularity. Now, the sport’s most venerable race has someone it can market beyond its hard-core fan base — a talented driver who stands apart with her flowing black hair and photogenic looks.

Patrick doesn’t get caught up in her impact on the male-dominated sport, saying it “sounds so goober.” But the fourth woman to race at Indy sure proved she’s capable of racing with the men.

“I made a point for anybody,” Patrick said. “I came through the pack twice.”

She did much better than the women who came before at Indy. Janet Guthrie’s best finish in three races was ninth in 1978. Lyn St. James never finished higher than 11th in seven attempts. Sarah Fisher was at Indy five times, with her best showing 21st.

Patrick has taken a major step toward shattering the gender barrier for good.

“To finish first would have been awesome, but she’ll be here many more times,” her mother said. “She’ll get it eventually.”

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