Toronto, Ont. (July 6, 2002) - Three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal knows talent when he sees it. That is precisely why last month he signed Danica Patrick to a three-year contract to race for his team in the...
Toronto, Ont. (July 6, 2002) - Three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal knows talent when he sees it. That is precisely why last month he signed Danica Patrick to a three-year contract to race for his team in the Barber Dodge Pro Series.
Patrick, a native of the Rockford, Illinois suburb of Roscoe, made her debut in the Barber Series event on the 1.755-mile temporary circuit at Exhibition Place in Toronto on Sunday. While other competitors turned challenges into crashes, Patrick ran a clean race and turned a 15th place spot on the starting grid into an impressive seventh place finish.
"You wouldn't expect somebody to jump into a CART race and go out there and finish in the top five in their first race and I almost did," said the newest Team Rahal member after the race. "So I think that it was a positive experience and the best of all, I got the full race distance in and have a solid finish to go to Cleveland with."
It has been a while since we have seen a driver of her potential come out of American motor sport. Rahal agrees: "I think, given her experience and success, she's a heck of a race car driver. Certainly to me she represents the best of that I have ever seen in terms of a woman ever making it to the top of the sport."
"He saw my dedication and he saw my drive and he wanted to be a part of that," recalls Patrick about her orientation with Rahal. "After testing me a few different times in BMWs and in the first celebrity race under pressure, I could handle it. When you've got somebody like that saying everything is okay, it's okay."
Toyota Atlantic Series President Vickie O'Connor has nothing but praise for the rising star.
"Danica Patrick is the real thing," commented O'Connor. "With the right opportunities she'll be right at the top of her sport."
In her short time with the team, Patrick summarized her experience this past weekend in Toronto: "It was a weekend where I learned a lot. I learned a lot about the team, about the other drivers, how it all works, about the car and going through the race weekend the way they do. It's a big learning curve."
Over the course of the weekend, Patrick's times got progressively better as she became more comfortable with both the car and the track. She shaved a second off her best lap times in each of the sessions, posting a time of 1:14.628 in practice on Friday, 1:13.708 in the first qualifying session that same day and 1:12.716 in the second session on Saturday.
"I think most of all it was getting comfortable with the track and then after that it was getting the setup down. I had to go ahead to do some big setup changes right at the beginning. I need a car that's just flat out, consistent, normal base setup and go out with it and learn about it."
Patrick had some braking problems in the race. Her front tires would lock up at times so she wasn't able to pass at the corners.
In her short career in racing, the 5'1" 110 lbs. phenom has developed a preference for the street circuits over the oval tracks. The course in Toronto - with its cement patches, maintenance covers and uneven pavement - poses quite a challenge for someone new to both the track and their car. Patrick offered some insight into the issue: "I think you get used to that kind of inconsistency with the circuit. What changes mostly is tire temperature, brake temperature and fuel load. It is the ever-changing car through a 40-minute race that you have to get used to."
At only 20 years old, Patrick has come a long way from her start in dirt track racing in Illinois.
"It really just comes from confidence and having people like Bobby Rahal believe in you. Along the way, I've had help from Ford, from BMW, from an array of people. So without them, I wouldn't have been given the chance to learn all these different cars and situations."
Patrick comes from a family where her father T.J. participated in sprint car racing as a hobby. Her sister Brooke was the first to take up racing while Danica, at age 10, offered support. Brooke soon lost interest. Danica stayed with it.
After starting out in karting, Patrick enrolled in a Lyn St. James driver development program in Indianapolis. There she learned about how to handle media relations, concentration and nutrition. Patrick struck up a friendship with St. James, who introduced her to Texas oil tycoon and former Indy car owner John Mecom Jr. when she was just 14 years old.
Mecom in turn introduced Patrick to Scottish racing legend Jackie Stewart, who gave her an audition in the Formula Vauxhall series in Europe when she turned 16. She moved to England where she spent the past three years competing in the tough Formula Ford division.
Patrick finished second in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in 2000, becoming the first woman to reach the podium in the history of the event. It was the highest finish for an American driver since Danny Sullivan took second in 1978.
She moved on to do a Formula 3 test with Carlin Motorsports and most recently, a U.S. Auto Club midget.
Back in April, Patrick participated in the 26th Annual Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race in the streets of downtown Long Beach, California. The event was the undercard for CART's Long Beach Grand Prix. She finished third overall and ranked first in the pro category, becoming the first female to do so. This was a great achievement considering her competition included former pro driver Tommy Kendall and Indy car racer Sarah Fisher.
At her Barber test last week in Sebring, Florida, Patrick was as quick as Boris Said and Bill Auberlen.
As her talent and determination moves her further up the CART ladder, it won't be long before we could see Danica Patrick in the driver's seat of a CHAMP car.