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Whatever works, just so she drives

Rookie Danica Patrick knows people notice her looks. But she figures her results will soon turn heads, too.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 1, 2005


Go ahead and look.

No, make that watch.

Danica Patrick doesn't bother to try to zip her femininity inside a fire suit, mask her face in a bulky racing helmet. Not that there would be any use considering the FHM layout, or the racy Indy Racing League promotional poster with her in the leather suit and the caption "We heard you like to watch."

The way the 23-year-old IRL rookie sees it, if her beauty is what the sponsors and fans come for, so be it. It puts her in a race car. When they see her race, she said, they'll come back for other reasons.

"I think that when they watch the races, and I think especially as time goes on and I learn and get used to things, that it's going to be more exciting because let's say they do go into the race with that kind of attitude and think "Ooooo,' you know, "cute girl out there,"' Patrick said. "And then I'm kicking butt. That's cool. That's really, really going to bring fans back again and it really doesn't matter to me. Whatever sells tickets. Whatever brings them back."

Patrick could be forgiven for being tired by now of the attention lavished upon her as the IRL's second full-time female driver, following Sarah Fisher. Sometimes blunt and the possessor of a handshake that can crumble anyone down to eye level - a feat considering she is 5 feet 2 - she gives the impression she likes to topple tasks and move on. With this issue, as with her career, however, she exhibits an unexpected patience.

"I've only been racing IndyCars for two races, so I imagine this is going to be a topic of conversation for a while," said Patrick, who finished 15th in the previous starts. "There's a lot of people who don't know who I am even though I've been racing for 14 years. There's a lot of people who have been racing for a really long time and things still come up. A niche is a niche."

Perhaps Patrick is comfortable with the topic because there is no dispute she earned her ride with Rahal Letterman Racing. Objective and analytical team owner Bobby Rahal scouted her while she was living on her own and driving in a Formula One feeder series in England. He signed her to drive in the Barber Dodge Pro Series in 2002.

Driving sometimes spotty equipment in a sexist environment with no support system, Patrick said, she grew up and grew tough in England, traits that will help her in what will surely be trying times in the IRL.

"It was character-building, no doubt," she said. "I didn't really have anyone there to fight my battles and get the best equipment for me all the time and make sure that I was not getting the short end of the stick on a five-car team, which was my last situation. And I was."

Patrick finished sixth in the Toyota Atlantic series in 2003 and third in 2004, the highest finish ever by a woman. She had 15 top-five finishes in 24 Atlantic starts, won a pole in Portland (the first by a woman in series history) in 2004, finished second twice, on the podium five times and became the first woman to lead an open-wheel championship when she took the points lead after Portland last season. Her race on Sunday in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will allow her to fall back on her road-racing experience.

Though she is the newest member of Rahal's three-car IRL team, she has been with the organization longer than teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira.

"Danica's earned her way here," Rice said. "So far, everything has been great."

Though racing opportunities for women are precious, Patrick said she has worked and waited too long to immediately accept the responsibility as the great racing hope of her gender. At the risk of sounding selfish, she stresses that this is her time now, and anything positive she can do for her gender is a happy by-product.

"I think that as a result of being me, if I can inspire and be a role model, that's wonderful," she said. "It's a nice thing to have going for you. The difficulty at this point is to think about that and take it on is a burden, you know. I really can't be anybody but me."

Her mandate from Rahal is simply drive like she wants to win - not a problem - and do what she feels comfortable with, magazines, IRL posters, whatever.

She's ready for the assignment. Just watch.