- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

INDIANAPOLIS — Everywhere Danica Patrick goes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the crowds follow.

There’s the camera crew documenting every move of her first month at the 2-mile track, and a curious media corps — from ESPN to People magazine — that continually peppers her with questions. When she finally gets a break from that, the autograph seekers are waiting.

It can be trying even for a veteran. But Patrick, a rookie, sees it as a chance to prove herself.

“Driving around has been maybe the easier part,” she said. “There’s been a lot of media and a ton of interviews. On the track, we have a great team and great cars, and that makes it fun.”

Patrick understands what’s at stake: To go from being a novelty as the Indy Racing League’s only female driver to a top contender, she must show that she can compete with the boys.

That didn’t go as well as she wanted yesterday. Her quest to become the first woman to win the pole for the Indianapolis 500 ended when she bobbled badly on the first turn of the first of four qualifying laps, turning a lap of 224.920 mph.

She recovered quickly, posting three laps above 227 for a 10-mile average of 227.004. That was good enough for fourth, the inside of the second row, in what is expected to be a 33-car field for the May 29 race. But Patrick, who had the top practice lap Saturday morning at 229.880, wasn’t ready to accept that effort.

“That could have been a lot worse, but it’s very, very disappointing,” a downcast Patrick said moments after climbing from her Rahal-Letterman Racing entry. “I nearly lost it on the first lap, and three laps in the high 227s after a 224 isn’t nearly good enough.

“I just about had it. I just about had it,” Patrick lamented. “I feel like I wasted a pole car.

Still, Patrick joined Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher as the only women to qualify for the Indy 500, and she has some advantages over her predecessors.

Unlike Fisher, who struggled to find full-time rides, Patrick is driving for a well-established and well-funded team. She has good equipment and an experienced crew and doesn’t have to spend her time pursuing sponsorships — assets that few drivers, male or female, get in their first major series ride.

The second-youngest driver on the circuit, at 23 she already is showing she can race. She has had a front-row start and a top-five finish this year, both at a race in Japan.

Last year, she captured one pole and had 10 top-five finishes in the Toyota Atlantic series. In 2000, her second-place finish at Europe’s Formula Ford Festival was the highest of any American, and she worked in St. James’ driver-development program as a teenager.

Team co-owner Bobby Rahal calls her the total package. Buddy Rice, last year’s Indy champion, says he respects her as a teammate.

“The way she climbed the ladder is different than any other female that’s come here,” Rice said. “You have to pay tribute to that in some degree because her experiences and her learning curve are completely different.”

Patrick also brings name recognition to a league desperately searching for prominent drivers.

Her bikini-clad photos in a men’s magazine and a foray into broadcasting have helped establish her popularity. Each time she pulled into the pits during rookie orientation this week, fans cheered — an honor that few rookies, including 1986 Indy champ Rahal, have received.

“There’s a ton of females at the track, and they need someone to root for,” said Mishael Abbott, a female rookie in the IRL’s developmental Infiniti Pro Series.

Patrick is trying to take it all in stride.

“I think I’m a very serious, dedicated, focused driver,” she said. “And I have a girlie side to me, too. I like skirts more than I like jeans.”

Those who know Patrick best say there’s more to this rookie than glamour. She’s a good driver.

“She’s very talented and gained a lot of experience,” St. James said. “She’s with a great team, and her solid foundation puts her in a unique position.”

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