Model Driver

Danica Patrick sizes up her passenger through black wraparound shades and quickly lets him know who's in charge: "All right. Buckle your belt." One metallic click and twenty seconds later, we're screaming down the long back straightaway of the Grand Prix of Denver road course at 110 miles an hour, the gold Ford Contour pace car in full song, Danica's delicate hands resting on the wheel, as casual as a Sunday motorist out for a meander in the park. The road -- smoother than your rich uncle's driveway this year -- suddenly widens as it sweeps left, and with a deft downshift under hard braking, Patrick aims the car into the circuit's already famous Turn 5, a treacherous, medium-speed hairpin that was the site of much metal-crunching and curse-hurling in the inaugural Denver race last Labor Day weekend.

Cool as ice, she urges the feisty little Ford into a nice two-wheel drift (Squeal of tires! Whiff of scorched rubber!) and, rounding the apex, nails the throttle to the floorboard. Her driving line is perfect. We emerge from the nasty corner in the absolute center of the next straight, having lost scarcely an instant to waver or wiggle. Fifteen seconds more and we're back where we started, stopped dead in the pits. The driver, her passenger notices, is wearing an enigmatic smile, a fashion T-shirt, what have to be $300 tan slacks and a pair of gold, low-heeled pumps with spiky toes -- as if she were just now driving away from a good lunch at a French restaurant.

"Thanks for a beautiful ride," the passenger says. "Sure. Anytime," the race driver answers coolly. She is soon gone again in a roar of engine and a blast of exhaust.

To say it plainly, Danica Patrick is a phenomenon in the making. At this weekend's Centrix Financial Grand Prix of Denver, the main attraction will be Sunday afternoon's glamorous "Champ Car" race, featuring unruly, full-throated, 220-mile-per-hour open-wheel racers driven by Championship Auto Racing Teams stars like Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser and 2002 winner Bruno Junqueira. But at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the green flag will fall on another, less glitzy race around the Pepsi Center, one likely to be witnessed mostly by a hard core of gearheads and motor-racing dreamers. The CART Toyota Atlantic Championship, featuring 240-horsepower, 165-mile-per-hour race cars powered by Toyota 4A-GE engines, is the racing equivalent of Triple-A baseball -- a top minor league where the stars of the future sharpen their skills, make their mistakes in slightly more forgiving equipment and seek to scratch and claw their way into the bigtime. The crowd is full of scouts; the competition is tooth-and-nail. Past Toyota Atlantic racers include Michael Andretti, Vasser, Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr. and former Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve.

For her part, Danica Patrick started racing go-carts in Illinois at age ten (against her younger sister, who was eight!) and at sixteen moved to England, where she spent three lonely years paying her dues struggling on the lower rungs of the racing ladder. In 2000, though, she ran second in England's prestigious Formula Ford Festival -- the highest finish by an American since future Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan finished second in 1974. This is her first season in Toyota Atlantics -- on Sunday she will again drive the blue, yellow and white number 24 car for Team Rahal -- and with just three events left on the twelve-race schedule, it looks like she'll finish somewhere between sixth and eighth in the drivers' point standings. Her results have been mixed -- a nice third in her series debut at Monterey, Mexico, a couple of "did not finishes," a fifth, a tenth, a competitive ninth. Last Sunday in Montreal, she ran seventh. But no race driver in the country comes under so much scrutiny, and very few of them must face the kind of pressure this self-assured, self-searching 21-year-old deals with every time she buckles on a helmet.

For better or worse, you see, Danica Patrick is the great hope for women in major-league motor racing. Because she's beautiful -- long, dark tresses, penetrating green eyes, a sleek figure -- she attracts as many photographers as Anna Kournikova at a major tennis tournament. But Danica's got more game than Anna -- a lot more. With another year or so of seasoning, many auto-racing experts believe, she will not only be strapped into a 700-horsepower Indy car, but she will be fast enough to compete with the best. Pioneers like Janet Guthrie in the 1970s and Lyn St. James in the 1990s helped clear the road for women to the Indianapolis 500, but they were never quick enough to win, and young Sarah Fisher, currently struggling through her second spotty season in CART's rival series, the Indy Racing League, has had more media attention than racing luck. Fisher may have been promoted too soon, and like the minor-league slugger who can't hit a big-league curveball, her days and races could be numbered.