Model Driver

Hotfoot Danica Patrick proves ladies love the fast lane.

Her boss thinks she's doing just that. Three-time CART champion and 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal first met Patrick at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, in 1999, and their acquaintance was renewed three years ago in England, when he was heading up Jaguar's new Formula 1 program and she was having her great year in Formula Ford. Rahal has owned an Indy car team since 1992 (his current driver is Michel Jourdain), but he got into the Toyota Atlantic series only last year -- because of the talent he saw in Danica Patrick. She's progressed much faster than expected, he says, and the growing pains have been minimal. "The bottom line is: She is fast, and I think in the right environment she can take the next step and become a champion at the highest levels of the sport."

Waiting another year for glory won't be a problem. Rahal is cautious with his young star, and he's got financial backing from a pretty solid minority partner: TV talk-show host and lifelong racing fan David Letterman.

For Patrick, Rahal is the ideal guide on and off the track. "I kind of consider him my second dad," she says. "He looks after me in a business sort of way, and also in a personal way -- like a daughter. He teaches me everything -- about life, about business, about racing, about everything that's important. And let's face it -- at this level, racing is your life." But the clear-eyed yong woman doesn't emulate her mentor's actual driving style. Says she, with conviction: "I don't want to be the next Bobby Rahal. I want to be the first me."

Indy 500 winner? Formula 1 world champion? Who knows? For now, she's focused on the road immediately ahead: trying to go faster as a rookie driver in Atlantics.

Meanwhile, the glamour offers pour in. Patrick hosts a weekend racing news program on Spike TV called Zero to Sixty, has done photo layouts for the British magazine FHM (which looks a lot like our Maxim), and Team Rahal's sponsors remain eager to put her face and fuselage (at 5' 2" and a hundred pounds, she's a car owner's dream, weight-wise) before the public. "Lots of that stuff comes up," she says, "and I enjoy it. It's fun. I'm not going to stand here and say, 'That's no big deal, just part of the job.' Forget that. I'm a chick, and I like it."

But racing is what stirs Danica's blood, and no one is more driven. "Because I'm female, I've always had this media attention, interest and pressure and expectation. But that's okay. I can deal with it. But what I really want is to be the best race-car driver in the world, and I don't mind waiting and learning. I'd rather stay one more year (in Atlantics) and make sure I'm completely ready to move -- so I can add twenty years to my career, as opposed to going too quickly and being done in a couple of years. Look what's happened to Sarah Fisher. I don't want that to happen to me. It would be detrimental to my career and to my mind."

Of course, motor racing comes furnished with all sorts of uncertainties. Currently in financial straits, CART itself could go out of business next year without a major infusion of cash, and that could spell career doom for a lot of young drivers -- as well as the demise of CART races like the young one in Denver. Race organizers, including general manager John Frew, wave off that possibility -- "We're already running and gunning for next year," he says -- but Patrick worries about her future in the most expensive sport on the planet. "How do we know if CART will even be around next season? That's frustrating. But I'm confident that there will be open-wheel racing in America, no matter who happens to be running it." There's also the matter of danger. Knocking wood on the table, she says, "I haven't broken anything, yet, but I've had some bad shunts. I've hit walls; I've hit people; I've hit guardrails and tire barriers. What race-car driver hasn't? But luckily, I haven't been hurt so far, and I don't plan to be."

Her green-eyed gaze is level and unafraid. "You know," she goes on, "when I was living alone in England I had faith in the fact that when I came back to the States I would get a ride. My dad was very concerned and nervous and didn't know what was going to happen. Was I going to work with my name on my shirt for the rest of my life? But for some reason, I just knew it was going to be fine. I don't know why, but I knew."

Within the year, she had signed on with Team Rahal; she began to make her mark in Toyota Atlantics and, if the racing cognoscenti don't miss their guess, set out on a quick straightaway toward becoming the world's fastest woman. Already, in fact, she's instilling fear in some people. After riding a lap with her in that (relatively) slow Ford pace car last week, one local radio reporter emerged a bit weak-kneed and announced: "Good thing I wore my Depends."

In other words, look out, world: Danica's in the rearview mirror and closing in fast.

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