05/22/05 — OPINION: Unlikely savior

View Archive

OPINION: Unlikely savior

By Neil Fuller
Published in Sports on May 22, 2005 2:15 AM

One person in America can save open-wheel racing. It isn't IRL founder Tony George. Some would say he ruined it.

And it isn't Roger Penske or Mario Andretti. Both men tried and failed to bring the feuding leagues back together.

The person who can save Indy car racing is Danica Patrick -- a 23-year-old woman who looks like a runway model and races like a runaway train.

Patrick is a rookie driver who hasn't won a race, but she's already a star. She's exactly what the IRL needs and Champ Car would love to have.

The Roscoe, Ill., native isn't breaking any new ground as a woman in racing, but she's different and she knows it.

Patrick is part Angelina Jolie, part A.J. Foyt. Her presence has brought a buzz back to the Indianapolis 500, something the event hasn't enjoyed in the 10 years since the IRL/Champ Car split began.

"The attention I've gotten is more than normal," Patrick told reporters earlier in the week. "But it's not more than it was 10 years ago when we were one big, happy family. We need to keep building toward that."

Patrick qualified fourth last weekend, the best starting spot any woman has attained at the Brickyard. More important, she has a car that can win and the skills to get it done.

"I think I have a great chance," Patrick said. "I trust my instincts, and I trust my ability. And I also feed off negativity. If you don't think I should be here, forget you. I'll prove I belong here and can race up front."

Media attention for the Indy 500 is way up this year, strictly because of Patrick. Photos show her in the midst of TV cameras, microphones and tape recorders.

It doesn't bother her a bit. She thrives on it.

"It keeps me hungry and fiery," Patrick said. "I almost don't want it to go away, because it would mean I'm not doing the job I should be doing."

Patrick knows that marketing yourself is the name of the game in racing these days. She was doing it well long before she came to the IRL.

Patrick hosted a cable TV show. She posed provocatively for FHM magazine. Her media guide photo is in full makeup with her cheek pressed against a wall.

This doesn't make her different from any other young driver of her era.

Darren Manning's IRL media guide photo shows him bare-chested and arms raised. Two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves posed for last year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes TV commercials about his bachelor exploits.

But like her male counterparts, Patrick first and foremost is a proven race-car driver. She finished fourth in Japan last month in only her fourth IRL start.

A slight bobble in Turn 1 on her first qualifying lap at Indy is the only thing that kept her from winning the pole last week for Rahal Letterman Racing.

"No female that came before me has been truly competitive and truly race-savvy," Patrick said. "The only thing I lack is experience."

Patrick is confident of her talent, but she also knows she's fortunate. So does Janet Guthrie, the first female driver at Indy in 1977.

"Danica is the first woman with topnotch equipment and the full backing of a winning team," Guthrie told The Dallas Morning News. "She has the talent and determination to make the most of it. All the ingredients are in place for her."

That advantage carries responsibility. Patrick sees the big picture.

"This is something the sport can feed off of a little bit," Patrick said. "I've been conscious of that for a long time."

Patrick transcends traditional racing lines. If she were to win the Indy 500, her celebrity would explode. And open-wheel racing would grow with her.

"If I get more attention, it helps everyone," Patrick said. "Sponsors on other cars are going to see it. Crowds will grow and TV viewers will grow. That's important for the sport."

This 5-foot-2, 100-pound dynamo can make a difference. Patrick can make people care about Indy again. People who quit caring long ago.

(News-Argus Sports Editor Neil Fuller can be reached at nfuller@newsargus.com.)