The klieg lights have been shining on Danica Patrick since the 23-year-old rookie began her Indy Racing League IndyCar Series career with Rahal letterman Racing this March.
Following two so-so races in which Danica quietly fulfilled her goal of finishing, Patrick performed so well at race #4 on the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval, qualifying second and finishing fourth that her time in Indianapolis this month has been one media twirl after another.
Being fastest twice -- and holding the top practice speed in morning testing on MBNA Pole Day -- as she prepares for the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race has kept the focus on Patrick and she's taking it all extremely well.
The fastest rookie in the field at 227.004mph after Pole Day was completed, Patrick was dejected not to take Pole after being so fast before her ten- mile, four-lap qualification run in her #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda/Firestone racer.
After making a huge mistake that easily could have landed her in the SAFER barrier on her first turn of her initial lap, Patrick recovered to set the fastest speed in qualifying, but her four-lap average wasn't quite enough to gain her a spot on the front row, much less the top starting position. As a result, the Beloit, WI native starts fourth in her first Memorial Day Classic.
Patrick believes she has a good grasp of the variables one needs to drink milk at the Indy 500. Certainly she's got sufficiently experienced talent in her own Rahal Letterman Racing garage to give her a few pointers: 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal is team co-owner; 1999 winner Kenny Brack is racing in stead of injured Buddy Rice, the defending Indy 500 titleholder.
Her team is deep with talent that's bound to aid her when she needs an assist. "I think I have a great chance of winning this race," Patrick declared. "I've been very fast all month, but I know I need as much time on the track as possible in race situations. It's tough that it's raining today," she noted, "but we did a lot yesterday and intend to do a lot Friday, too, before we fine-tune on Carburetion Day (a week from Friday)."
Still trying to understand what her car does in traffic, how its handling changes from full-tank runs to when the methanol is nearly gone, what the difference is handling capabilities between old and new tires, Danica Patrick is trusting her own abilities and intuition. "I figure I'll have a pretty good idea about a quarter of the way through the race," she shrugged.
There have been other female drivers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, starting with Janet Guthrie, on to Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher, but none of them have been as well prepared as Patrick, whose father was a midget and motocross racer in his youth. "My folks met at a snowmobile race, married soon after and then quickly had me. What does that tell you? I'm from a family of racers."
Patrick got into the sport in order not to be left out when her younger sister Brooke displayed an interest in racing go-karts. At the age of 16 she went to England to race when she realized this was her calling and ran in the formula Vauxhall Winter Series. "I needed that to happen and, even though I missed my family and friends a lot I needed to go over there. In fact, I couldn't imagine not going," Patrick explained.
The lower formulae she contested "are very concentrated with drivers from many different countries," Patrick detailed. "It was a great place to learn how to drive but I really didn't get much of an education on setting up the cars. I did discover that when you have a good day you're at the front and when you have a bad day you're 15 positions (at least) in the back. I was forced into such different situations with every event."
"Our PR department makes sure I'm not run dry. There's only so much I can do and it seems like I'm doing it all," Patrick laughed. "I've known for a long time that I needed to get to the front of the field to get this attention and bring fans to the track," Patrick said.
To Danica, it's great to be a woman accepted in a man's world. "People like to see something fresh and different and I have tons of support from the fans. People seem to be cheering for me all the time. I feel like I belong here and I aim to race up front."
Patrick is looking to always be competitive and consistent, something those who came before her were unable, for the most part to accomplish. "I'm meshing well with the team and engineers; they keep me hungry! I am with a great team and great drivers need that entire package.
"Everything I've learned to now will help me on race day here at Indy. I'm talking to our guys who have won this thing. I need to be smart out there and need the experience to understand what the car does."
The hardest part of the month of May has been "accepting fourth place in qualifying. It [pole position] was in my hand and it slipped out. When I had that bobble in Turn 1 I caught it and it did me some good. I feel I turned it into a positive" by coming back and completing the run with three laps over 227mph.
Danica's favorite part of the time she's spent at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month is simple: "Every time I come into the pits, all the cheering just stirs me. I'm grateful for their support."