It is the crushing handshake that offers the first indication that there is more to 28-year-old Danica Patrick than meets the eye. The first physical indication, anyway, for her reputation has preceded her into a suite in the swanky W Hotel in Manhattan. This pretty, petite young woman, five foot not very much, is an IndyCar driver of huge and ever-burgeoning renown in the United States, with a prestigious win behind her in the 2008 Indy Japan 300, and, more momentously still, third place in last year's Indianapolis 500.
In this year's Indy 500, on Sunday, Patrick looks like a long shot to improve on third. She will start 23rd, further back on the grid than she has been in all five of her previous runs in the great race, and last Saturday was booed for blaming her poor qualifying performance on an inadequate car. Broadcast over the track's public address system, her comments were deemed disrespectful towards other members of her team, Andretti Autosport. Yet, as I am to discover in her hotel suite, this was simply Patrick being characteristically forthright. Politically correct, she ain't.
Take her comments about Formula One, and indeed about Britain. Ever since her emergence as a star of the IndyCar scene, there have been rumours that she might switch to Formula One, becoming only the sixth woman to compete in that testosterone-fuelled world since the whole thing began in 1950. Certainly, the mind boggles at the marketing impact Patrick's presence would have on Bernie Ecclestone's global circus. But when I raise the prospect with her, she is swift to dampen any speculation.
"I think it's not completely realistic," she says. "I lived in England for a few years – I raced Formula Ford over there – but I really like being with my family and friends, having the creature comforts of the States and everything. I'd never say never, and Formula One I imagine would be amazing, but having fun is important to me and I think the environment of F1 is a little bit cold. You don't see drivers hanging out together. Takuma Sato came to IndyCar [from F1] and he was, like, 'Everyone's so nice here'. It's a much more fun environment, and it's different again from IndyCar to Nascar stock-car racing [in which Patrick races part-time]. Everyone there is so kind and friendly. So, it [switching to F1] would have to be a unique opportunity."
Nevertheless, she concedes that it was in Britain where she cut her teeth (and what teeth they are, by the way, not just white but movie-star white) as a driver. Precociously brilliant behind the wheel of a go-kart, she met a Brit in Indianapolis who told her she could learn more in a year in the old country than in five years in the States. "And I would have to say that was true, but not from a racing perspective. From a life experience perspective."
Aged 16, and burning with ambition, she moved from the family home near Chicago to "sleeping on the couch in a small little apartment thing" in Milton Keynes. The first wave of culture shock came with the realisation that, irony of ironies, she wasn't old enough to drive on British roads. Before leaving home, moreover, she'd had to sell her beloved Ford Mustang Cobra, which she'd been driving, "totally illegally", since she was 15. And when she did turn 17, all she could afford in Milton Keynes was a Fiat Punto, in which, she says, "I got up to 108mph with the wing mirrors tucked in. Wheeeee!" Wheeeee, indeed. Having exhausted the Punto, she moved on to a Vauxhall Vectra, "and then a Granada or something awful. An old brown thing, about 20 years old. I remember having to drive from Birmingham to Silverstone racetrack and you could never let off the throttle or it would just die."
She stayed for three years. "I enjoyed the first year but every year after that got more depressing. The weather really got to me." As, apparently, did our institutionalised sexism. "It felt much more old school. Women still cooked and cleaned. It felt like, you know, the women's movement happened a little faster here than it did there. I remember one of the team owners I drove for. I was the quickest one day in practice, and to the guys he was like, 'She's the quickest, come on!' as if it wasn't OK to be slower than me."
Plenty were. She finished second in the 2000 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, the event won two years earlier by a certain Jenson Button, who was one of a "bratpack" of racing friends she made. She also recalls meeting the 16-year-old Lewis Hamilton at Button's 21st birthday party. Button, she tells me, "is a nice guy. I was happy to see him win last year."
Despite hanging out with the boy racers, Patrick manifestly remembers her time in Britain with little affection. "What didn't kill me made me stronger," she says, woundingly, but concedes that it helped her land her first IndyCar seat with Rahul Letterman Racing, co-owned by the talk show host David Letterman (on whose studio sofa she is now something of a regular). "Bobby Rahul recognised that it was quite the commitment to go over there. As tough as it was, it did pay off."
The whiff of sexism followed her back across the Atlantic, though, and it's still there, mixed with the smell of lubricating oil. In fact, she accepts that it will never entirely evaporate, especially while she continues to pose so seductively for magazines: see Google Images for numerous spectacular examples. I ask her whether it upsets her still to be referred to as a woman driver, rather than a driver? "It's fine," she says. "It would be hypocritical of me to use being female in some ways, and diss being female in other ways. It's part of the programme."
As for the actual racing part of the programme, she reckons that being female actually helps. "If there are a lot of yellow flags, restarts and stuff, I feel like maybe the guys can get excited and wheeeee, boom, make a mistake and hit something. I take another deep breath and stay more relaxed, so maybe I'm able to keep my emotions a little bit more in check."
That said, she owns up to being ferociously competitive in almost every aspect of life, more of a male than a female trait, and not least when playing the motor-racing video game, Blur, to which she has given her endorsement, and which she has come to New York to promote. On her first go, she beat the game's producer. "He was a little surprised," she says, with a gleaming smile.
I ask what else gets her competitive juices flowing. "You name it. Cards, working out, beating people off the line at a red light." She drives a Mercedes ML63 AMG, and also owns a Lamborghini, which stays in the garage. "In the Lamborghini I have to avoid certain roads because of pot holes, and there's nowhere to put my drink, no cup holder. And I'm not going to lie, it looks pretentious. I used to think it was cool to, like, drive it to dinner. Now? Like I really need to be looked at any more."
Along with those movie-star teeth, Patrick has, in the US, movie-star fame. There is a hint of it even in the hotel suite. When she finishes the last drop of mineral water in her bottle, an assistant steps instantly forward to hand her another. When she shifts in her chair, a jacket is offered just in case she might be registering the fact that she is cold, which she isn't, but there is a whole phalanx of people around her, their challenge to interpret her every syllable of body language.
At heart, though, she's just a racer, and whether she's starting 23rd on the grid or in pole position, the Indianapolis 500 is the race that makes her heart pound like no other. "The day before, the night before, the morning of, you can feel the weight and importance of the race. It's nerve-racking. Even if you race 15 years you only have 15 tries, and I'm on number six already."
Unsurprisingly, she wasn't wholly satisfied with third place last year. "When the potential to win is there it's very frustrating. But it's such a long race – 500 miles – that many strategies do play out." Will she consider it a failure if by the end of her career she has not become the only woman with an Indy 500 under her belt? "Oh no. My boss [Michael Andretti] is one of those who did it many times, led a ton of laps, and I'd be surprised if he thought he was a failure because he didn't ever win."
Nevertheless, we can safely assume that for as long as she competes in America's blue riband race, nobody will be trying harder to win it. Which is precisely why she ruffled so many feathers with her outburst last weekend. "It's my favourite," she says. "I like the preparation, the pomp and circumstance, the people and parades. It's a huge event, and to be part of something that people care about makes you feel good."
And with that my audience with the remarkable, redoubtable Danica Patrick is at an end, but for a valedictory handshake even more crushing than the first.
Blur is released today for Sony Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PCReuse content