Danica earns her place among historic female sports figures
In some ways, it was kind of appropriate that Danica Patrick's historic victory came when it was least expected, on the other side of the earth at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on a race that was televised on ESPN Classic.
Not only was her IndyCar victory an "Instant Classic" but the accomplishment was of international significance -- something special that could be shared on more than one continent.
Even though her victory may have been in secret, televised by an obscure cable channel best known for televising Cheap Seats and past episodes of the World Series of Poker, news of her victory will help transcend IndyCar Racing back to the mainstream of sports.
It is yet another sign of the positive vibe this form of racing has been feeling since unification at the end of February. Prior to that, IndyCar Racing had become the "Redheaded Stepchild" of the sporting world, relegated to the back pages of the sports sections when it was embroiled in an open-wheel civil war, first with CART and recently with CART's successor, Champ Car.
But when the sport of IndyCar racing became whole again, with Champ Car ceasing operation and many of its teams joining IndyCar, the sport was back and relevant again.
First it was Graham Rahal winning the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg two weeks ago, becoming the youngest IndyCar winner in history at 19.
But that accomplishment may pale in social significance to what Patrick did on a cold, overcast day 65 miles northeast of Tokyo -- a race that had been postponed earlier Saturday because of a wet track and rescheduled for 10 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
Patrick is now more famous for her racing skill than for her stunning beauty that graced the pages of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition.
"It's been a long time coming," a tearful Patrick said in victory lane. "Finally."
The weight is off the diminutive Patrick's shoulders.
Barely tipping the scales at 100 pounds, there were drivers who believed she had a weight advantage in a sport where victories often are measured in tenths, hundredths and even thousandths of a second, a speeding race car will go faster with a lighter load.
So IndyCar officials instituted a driver/car weight rule this season, similar to what nearly every other racing series utilizes.
On Sunday in Japan, it didn't matter because Patrick's Andretti Green Racing team played the fuel strategy game perfectly. She saved fuel early in her final run while the other drivers in front of her either had to pit for a splash of Ethanol in the closing laps, or get off the throttle like Helio Castroneves had to do with three laps to go.
That played perfectly into Patrick's plan as she sped by Castroneves with two laps to go, drove to the checkered flag and into history as the first woman ever to win a race in a major closed-course racing series.
"I can't say the last stint was exactly hard," Patrick said. "I was taking it easy and going fast but still trying to save fuel. All I had to beat was Helio and I knew I had been saving fuel earlier in the stint. I didn't want to make the mistake of not trying harder to get by him.
It was T.J. and Bev Patrick of Roscoe, Ill., that saw talent in his young driver when she was racing go-karts as a youngster, beating the big boys when she was just a kid.