ST. PETERSBURG - Danica Patrick is off to racing school in Sebring, the latest step in her road to the big leagues.
Go ahead, shake her hand.
If you don't already respect Danica Patrick after watching her race go-karts, you will once she stops the circulation in your fingers with her departing gesture.
Not only can Patrick, 16, humble her male counterparts with her grip, she can bring out the worst in them behind the wheel. That was evident April 4 at MoKart, a St. Petersburg indoor go-kart facility, during a short-track practice.
For the third time in six minutes, Patrick lapped one particular male driver who earlier had bragged about his credentials. Clearly agitated, the 30-year-old driver retaliated by ramming Patrick into the red and yellow tires lining the track. To pound his message home, he did it again. Characteristically calm and collected, Patrick floored it on the next lap and spun her rival into the wall.
"After the race, he came up and punched her in the helmet," said Massari-Muller Racing team co-owner Domenic Massari, for whom Patrick races.
"So she punched him right back, as if to say, "No one messes with me.' I don't think the guy realized she was a girl because her helmet was on. I think when he saw all that brown hair fall out of it, he just about died."
Such incidents only add fuel to Patrick's fire. A high school sophomore from Illinois, Patrick outdistanced a contingent of overzealous males to capture two Grand National Karting championships last year. Those accolades, combined with three national point championships and the 1995 North American championship in the Yamaha Junior Can class, have geared the one-time cheerleader up for the next step in her already-illustrious racing career: Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and Professional Sports Car Racing Inc.
Starting today, Patrick will spend countless hours braking and accelerating in Track Speed School at Sebring International Speedway. It is just one of three driving schools Patrick has attended in the last two weeks to prepare for her Sedan debut May 2 at an SCCA region race at Daytona International Speedway.
Behind Tampa-based Massari-Muller Racing, which has three wins and four podium finishes in the last two years, Patrick plans to make her professional debut in a BMW 328is at Road Atlanta Motor Sports Center in June. But like any teenager, Patrick wants more.
SCCA racing "is the first step on the ladder in getting to Indy cars," said Patrick, whose agent and mentor is Indy-car driver Lyn St. James. "Some people may not think go-kart racing is adequate preparation. But if they tried it just once, they'll realize it's a lot more difficult than it looks."
From the moment Patrick slid into the driver's seat at age 10, she has made it look so simple. In her first race at Wisconsin's Sugar River Raceway, Patrick was lapped within six laps by the leaders. By the end of the 22-race schedule, however, she was second in points among 20 drivers and had broken the track record by almost a half-second. Six years later, that record still stands.
To no surprise, Patrick has broken and set numerous records in her somewhat short career. There was the time she broke two in one day at Michigan Raceway Park. On Tuesday at MoKart, she owned all four.
"My brother called me the other day and said some girl beat my record," said St. Petersburg resident Tommy Pheil, 36, who races Porsches in his spare time. "I had to get down here to see for myself. It's great to have some competition. To me, it's the same even though she's a girl. When she's in the driver's seat, I treat her just like anybody else."