Female driver Danica Patrick, at 20, is that good

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Author: Ed Hinton
Date: May 15, 2002
Publisher: Tribune Content Agency
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,480 words

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INDIANAPOLIS _ Probably the best female driver in the world _ and certainly the woman most likely to set world motor racing on its ear _ isn't competing here, or at Monaco or Charlotte, this month.

Danica Patrick is sitting home in Rockford, Ill., in a sort of trans-Atlantic limbo, waiting to audition in Europe for the man who discovered Michael Schumacher.

Any race fan can tell you who Sarah Fisher is. At 21, she'll start ninth in her third Indy 500 on May 26. She's fairly fearless, and she's good. But she needs to get better. An outright win at Indy is still a longshot for her.

It takes a highly placed, truly talent-savvy racing insider _ a Jackie Stewart or a Bobby Rahal _ to tell you who Danica Patrick is.

"There is no question," says Rahal, the 1986 Indy winner and former CART champion, that Patrick can "become the first woman to win the Indy 500."

Not just compete in it, as Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James, and now Fisher, have before her.

Win it.

Danica Patrick, at 20, is that good.

It was Stewart, the two-time world champion, who _ convinced that she is the most serious female Formula One candidate yet _ supervised Patrick's path through three years of a crucible hardly known in the U.S., but in fact "the most intense training ground there is in motor sports," as Rahal puts it _ the "schooling formula" ladder of Britain and Europe.

Fisher's experience has been mainly on oval tracks. Patrick's background, though less known, is deeper, tougher, more intense. The full measure of a driver is how well he or she adapts to all sorts of tracks, including road courses.

Oval trackers rarely adapt well to road racing. On the other hand, road racers often adjust with lightning quickness to ovals _ witness pole-sitter Bruno Junqueira and three other Brazilians in the top five starting positions for this year's 500, all of them at more than 230 mph.

And there is something else about Danica Patrick, unlike any other female racer before her: She has knockout looks, and speaks her mind, fearless of controversy. She is Demi Moore with the driver's demeanor of the late Ayrton Senna.

That will sell. If _ or when _ she reaches the major leagues of motor racing, whether F1 or Indy cars, she might not so much arrive as explode onto the scene, a candidate for the cover of every magazine from Time to Paris Match to People to Sports Illustrated.

The other day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, sitting in Team Rahal's motor coach in the paddock, Patrick happened to see a television interview with Sam Hornish Jr., 21, the male prodigy of the Indy Racing League, who won the championship last year and is leading the points this season.

Hornish, she said, was the only male driver she had problems with, while they were both teenagers, soaring up through the ranks of championship go-karting.

"You just felt the bad vibes from him _ he just didn't like getting beat by a girl," she said, remembering a slam-bang encounter with Hornish that she won, in a national meet. "A lap before the end, I was in the lead. He tapped me in a corner, and then he and another guy got by me. So I'm third in the last lap, and there's one more corner left."

And then she smiled with cool satisfaction: "I never lifted. Just drove straight over the top of him."

That sort of style might smack of NASCAR aptitude, and that's where most of the U.S. corporate sponsorship is going nowadays. But Patrick is only marginally interested.

"I'm sure it would be fun," she said of NASCAR. "I just think ovals would get really boring."

Indeed, here the other day, she was talking Michelle Jourdain Jr., a driver she knew in the European schools who has already raced at Indy. Her question: "Is the race boring?"

But, she concedes, "Indy is Indy . . .so you want to do it, and you want to win it."

There is no timetable for her driving here. Rahal wants her to stay in the U.S., and plans to start by putting her in a Formula Atlantic car as soon as possible. But Patrick's goal is Formula One, and that means Europe again, to drive under the knowing eyes of Willi Weber, the racer and manager who spotted Schumacher when nobody else was watching the young German, and launched him to F1.

Patrick's background is similar to both Schumacher's and Senna's _ meteoric rise through karting with numerous regional, national and continental championships; then into the English schooling formulas.

Her rise was thrown off schedule last year by a management change at Ford Motor Co.'s Jaguar Formula One team in England. While Rahal was running the team, Jaguar had its own in-house Formula Three team _ the first major step toward F1 _ as a sort of farm club. Rahal had Patrick at the brink of F3 when he was pressured out of the Jaguar directorship.

He was aware of her ability, and "I felt that I was in position to do something about it," he says. "Unfortunately, when I got the exit sign, they cancelled all that."

Ford hired the controversial Austrian former world champion Niki Lauda to direct the Jaguar team.

"Niki came in and said, `What's that (the F3 team) for? Get it out of here,'" Patrick said. "The whole F3 program was dropped."

Patrick then was signed by BMW to drive for its prototype sports car team in the U.S., until the German manufacturer decided to sit out the season due to a technological dispute with the American Le Mans Series.

"It's frustrating, for sure," she says of the current snags. "Because I know I'm good and I know I could bring a lot to whatever series I was doing. . . . I think it could totally change everything."

Weber has sent word from Germany that he has only one bottom line _ he wants to see her drive.

"That's cool _ that's really good," she said. "It's very rare that you get to show what you can do before somebody wants to do a deal."

The looks and the persona aside, she has complete confidence in her own ability, and therefore no stage fright whatsoever about driving for the starmaker Weber.

"She'll get something _ she's too good," says Rahal. "She's a complete package in so many ways. And she's very young. Time is on her side."

x x x

Jeff Gordon will come roaring out of his slump in The Winston on Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway, if track president H.A. Humpy Wheeler is right _ and he usually is.

Wheeler has been so good at forecasting the winner of NASCAR's all-star race _ correctly picking eight of the last 13 _ that his prognostication announcement has become a public ritual around Charlotte. And this week, he called Gordon "the hungriest guy with the fastest car" for the final sprint of the race.

The Winston isn't an official points race. So if Gordon fails to win the May 26 Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's, his official losing streak will run to 20. But Gordon's first Cup win ever was in the 600 of 1994, and he's won three more times at Charlotte since, including consecutive wins of the 600 in `97 and `98.

x x x

The dark horse in The Winston could be Joe Nemechek, signed Wednesday by Gordon's own Hendrick Motorsports team to replace Jerry Nadeau, who parted with the team last week.

Nemechek, of Lakeland, Fla., will at least finish this season for Hendrick _ some semblance of permanence, at least, after being adrift since the end of last season. Nemechek and team owner Andy Petree reluctantly parted last year because they couldn't find sponsorship for this season.

Then, Nemechek had hardly arrived at Travis Carter's team this year when that team's primary sponsor, Kmart, filed for bankruptcy and withdrew its backing.

And suddenly, here sits Nemechek with the richest, most corporate-connected team in NASCAR. But his berth in The Winston is of his own doing _ by virtue of his win at Rockingham, N.C., last November.

Nadeau, meanwhile, will drive in Saturday night's preliminary event at Charlotte, the Winston Open, in the Valvoline Pontiac normally occupied by the injured Johnny Benson. Nadeau will remain in the car until Benson recovers from the broken rib he suffered in a Busch race at Richmond on May 3.


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(c) 2002, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/. On America Online, use keyword: OSO.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A85982344