A woman's place? From cheerleader to main attraction in fast lane of US sport

Danica Patrick, a rookie with model looks, is doing what no female driver has done before. David Tremayne reports
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The Independent Online

When Danica Patrick climbed from her Rahal Letterman Racing Panoz Honda after finishing only 13th at Texas Motor Speedway - her first race since she had electrified 300,000 spectators at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the famed Indy 500 - she appeared diminutive as she was dwarfed by consoling colleagues.

She is 23 years old, stands 5ft 2in, weighs 100lb and is trying to hack it in a high octane man's world. But do not worry about Ms Patrick. Appearances are deceptive. Hers may combine the looks of a model and the panther-like grace of an athlete, but as the motorsports writer Paul Kelly put it, "she has the handshake of a longshoreman - there is real steel inside".

Despite her rookie status, Patrick was fourth on the grid for last month's 500 - the race where they only put doors on the toilets after Graham Hill complained in 1966; where women were not even allowed into the pits until 1971; and where only three have ever dared to race. The IndyCar champion, Tony Kanaan, qualified fastest this year with a four-lap average of 227.566mph; Patrick lapped in 227.004, and her best lap of 229 was the fastest of the month.

"What really impressed me was that she didn't let a big wobble in Turn One on her first lap put her off," said her entrant Bobby Rahal, the three-times IndyCar champion, winner of the 1986 500, and former principal of Jaguar's Formula One team. But far from being happy, Patrick was angry with herself that she missed the pole.

She became the only woman ever to lead the 500. But for a couple of excusable rookie mistakes - stalling in the pits, then spinning during a restart - and the need to surrender 50bhp by thinning out the fuel mixture after her pit stops got out of synch in a race marred by yellow flag incidents, she could have won. "I screamed in my helmet a couple of times," she admitted afterwards, "but nobody could hear that." She fought back from 16th to the lead, and her eventual fourth place justified all the inevitable hype and proved she is the real deal.

"It was a close race," she said in the paddock. "We were playing with fuel strategy a bit. We almost had it. It was a very good month for myself, for the team, the sponsors and the series. So many things were elevated and so many people were watching. A lot of stir was made and that was beneficial for everybody."

While Dan Wheldon, the first British winner since 1966, was able to walk unmolested while visiting the Formula One circus, Patrick was hounded. Privately, she has been finding the media hunger very trying but Jenson Button, whom she befriended during her days racing Formula Ford in England at the age of 16, counselled her to find a way of coping. When she was confronted by the Formula One media outside Button's BAR-Honda camp, she handled herself with aplomb and revealed a keen sense of humour and awareness of what she wants.

"What does Ferrari mean to you?" someone asked. "It's a car that I cannot buy right now," she replied, before adding, "Actually, I probably could..."

The Danica Effect has been extraordinary. ABC's coverage of the 500 was up 40 per cent. They continually restocked her merchandise during the month of May, and on the evening of the 500 all that was left was one baseball cap, two T-shirts and a scale model. So has she been surprised by her overnight emergence as a new role model for American women?

"The things that we have done have been good things, especially for a rookie," she said. "I have gone for pole. In two of the races we almost got it, I qualified third last time out and we've led a couple of races. Considering all that and the increase in ratings for the 500, it is fairly justifiable. It is the story that everyone is playing. It has fed off other things and has grown a lot but, yeah, I guess I am a little surprised."

There was talk of her doing a demonstration at Indy in a BAR Formula One car, and she may yet test one in the future. "But I have to say that I am very happy driving IRL [Indy Racing League] right now," she said. "I think it's a great championship with an incredible amount of talent in it. And I love the States. I like being around my family and friends. I would never say no to F1; I would never say no to Nascar [US saloon car racing]. You have to be open to all opportunities."

Before leaving Indianapolis for Hollywood, to promote the latest Herbie movie as part of a sponsorship deal with Rahal's team, she spelled out the terms on which she would be interested in Formula One. "You would have to know you are running for a top team, just like I am running for a top team in IRL. I am only happy when things are going well and I have to look after my own happiness! When I went to England to race I was dead set on racing in Formula One. I knew everything about it. But as time wore on I knew that there were different ways to be happy and to be successful and to get to where you want to be. I love being here. It's home."

As a child, Patrick said, she "played with Barbies a lot. I was a very normal kid. I did a lot of sports. Cheerleading, volleyball, basketball, band, choir, you name it, I tried it." Now she has found her niche. "I have no schedule. Opportunities will arise and I will deal with them when they come. When you are successful, things take care of themselves. People want you and then you are able to make the decision that makes you the happiest."

She has the talent, the looks, the personality, but there is more to her than that. You can tell a lot about a driver in adversity. Patrick qualified third on Texas's 230mph banked bullring, where even Rahal says he is scared to watch, but after finishing only 13th she was completely open about her performance.

"When your car is not great and things are not going your way exactly, the racing is harder, the car is harder to drive, you are mentally draining out," she said. "It's easy to drive a good car, it really is. At Indianapolis I had a great car and we worked hard all month to get that. In Texas we still qualified in the front but the race car was not great. We run two abreast, three abreast, there... My car was oversteering at the top when I was going around people and understeering when I was down on the bottom, so it was not happy anywhere.

"I finally figured it out, which takes time because I am new and that was really only the second side-by-side racing I have done in my life. Considering I was a rookie I think that just figuring it out in general and staying on the lead lap and racing hard is all you can really ask. I came away from it with experience and that is what I am going for all year. More experience, learn as much as you can, finish every lap."

It would be a wonderful story if Patrick - who grew up in Roscoe, Illinois - were eventually to go to Formula One, though Bernie Ecclestone's hand might suffer in her grip after his tongue-in-cheek comment in Indianapolis that, "Women should be all dressed in white, like all the other domestic appliances." A woman who can race for three hours at speeds of 225mph in a predominantly masculine sport is a marketing dream. But ultimately, whether she goes to Formula One or not matters little: the blow she has struck for her gender will keep resounding - and, right now, all she cares about is being competitive, whatever and wherever she races.