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.

Patrick, on the other hand, is taking her time, dealing with the media glare and getting faster by the minute. Says she: "I'm lucky. I'm a female, and that's part of the reason I get what I need to go out on the track and do what I love to do -- and that's drive race cars. To show what I can do and justify my existence."

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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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo