IRL: Patrick preps for first IndyCar race

The Indy Racing League IndyCar Series begins its tenth season of competition this year with 22 cars attempting to qualify for slots in the Toyota Indy 300 on the Homestead-Miami Speedway oval. There will be plenty of new faces to look at on the...

The Indy Racing League IndyCar Series begins its tenth season of competition this year with 22 cars attempting to qualify for slots in the Toyota Indy 300 on the Homestead-Miami Speedway oval.

There will be plenty of new faces to look at on the grid, as many top drivers have found the League's competition sufficiently intense to jump in.

One of the most anticipated rookie candidates is Danica Patrick, driver of the #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda/Firestone racer. A two-year Toyota Atlantic Championship contender, Patrick joins 2004 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner Buddy Rice and Brazilian veteran Vitor Meira on the three- car Rahal Letterman Racing squad.

Danica Patrick will attempt to become the fourth woman qualifier for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing this May, following the exploits of Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher, none of whom had great success at the Brickyard oval and in IndyCar Series competition throughout the season.

But Patrick is of a different breed than the three who preceded her: she has worked at her craft since the age of 10, moved to Europe to hone her skills and only returned to the States when she felt ready for combat on a professional level.

An intense person with a handshake that could break bones, Danica Patrick doesn't really look the part of the driver. One can see she's focused on her job, though, as she listens intently to the advice given her by Rice and Meira and by the stellar team put together for her rookie assault on Indy cars.

"I've never been in this situation before," Patrick said of the butterflies in her system as she approaches her first race this weekend in South Florida. "I'm nervous, for sure but I want to get going," she admitted. "The real challenge begins when the season starts and we'll be able to see" if pre-season testing work pays off.

Patrick is pleased with the rapport she's engendered on this large Hilliard, Ohio-based team and notes that she "gets on really well with all of them. Everyone's been very helpful and testing has gone really well. I've gone fast and it's a good sign of things to come."

While it's easy to dwell on her femininity and the novelty of being the sole woman driver on a 22-car grid, Patrick looks beyond those simplistic terms. "Comparisons with [other woman drivers] don't affect me at all. I can only do the best I can," she remarks. "The things they've done helped others come in to the business but at the end of the day I'm just another driver with expectations and goals."

And what might be those expectations and goals for her? "I just need to be me and be confident in my abilities. I'm focused and intent on learning and trying not to get overly excited or down when things happen. This is a very big year for me," she understates.

What made Patrick gravitate to motor sports? Well, her younger sister Brooke wanted to try out a racing kart - their father competed during their childhood - and Danica "didn't want to be left out so I went racing."

Her natural knack for the precision and smoothness necessary to compete at a higher level became apparent early on, together with her competitive nature and the rest of her story transpired to bring Danica Patrick to this point.

The big step from Toyota Atlantic to Indy cars might be intimidating, but Danica's not letting on to that. Moving from sprint races of less than an hour to 500-mile competitions is a daunting thing, so Patrick has been working hard on her physical preparation. Being engaged to a physical trainer helps, of course, but Patrick has been working out for a long time.

"My fiancé is teaching me how to be fit and we're working with heavier weights in our strength training. I've learned to keep the sessions regular and keep a good eye on my blood sugar," she confesses. Whether Patrick has the stamina necessary to compete won't be known, though, until competition actually commences.

What she likes about the Indy cars, after just three testing dates is the fact "it actually does burn-outs and I love it!" The Indy car is just "different to drive. That's all there is to it, but the initial acceleration capabilities are really neat," Patrick exclaims.

The waiting is almost over now and Patrick will be doing some more promotional activities before she readies for her first 200-lap race on the banked Homestead-Miami Speedway oval.

"I hope to win races and championships, obviously, but I know it's wise to be realistic and patient about this job. I'm keeping my eye on Buddy and Vitor and using the help they're offering" to make it through her first year of IndyCar Series competition. The obvious goal is to take Bombardier Rookie of the Year honors, but "as long as we're moving forward, I'll be pleased."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Lyn St. James , Buddy Rice , Danica Patrick , Vitor Meira