Breaking the glass ceiling
Female CART driver believes the sky's the limitPosted: Thursday June 19, 2003 12:56 AM
MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) -- Danica Patrick drives a Toyota, but longs for a Ferrari. The 160 mph she gets out of her Toyota is OK, but she likes the Ferrari's 200 mph.
"If I'm given the equipment in the right situation and the right people around me, I will win them anything," she says. "I've always been very competitive, and if somebody's going to do something, I'm going to try and do it better."
Patrick, 21, started with go-karts a decade ago and began driving for serious money at 16.
Since then, she has spent three seasons in England competing in Formula Vauxhall and Formula Ford before returning to the United States last year and signing on with Bobby Rahal to race in the Toyota Atlantic series -- CART's rung below its Champ cars.
At 18, she finished second in England's Formula Ford festival, the highest ever for an American.
She calls her experience there the Harvard of racing.
"You get so much seat time, the tracks are all so close, and at the level for Formula Ford, you can just pound on those cars so much. It was just laps after laps after laps after laps."
The downside was that she didn't learn much about the car's mechanics.
"They're very stubborn and they think the driver's always wrong. They think one setup should work for every driver, and that's completely untrue," she said.
Back in this country, she signed with Team Rahal and ran a limited Barber Dodge series last year, learning there's more to driving than steering and shifting.
"Over the last year, I've really listened, I've really asked a lot of questions," she said.
It was her determination -- both as a driver and a racer -- that prompted Rahal to sign her.
"I saw a girl who was willing to make the most difficult of choices, who had the absolute commitment and desire and willingness to sacrifice. I saw that and the tremendous strength of hers," he said.
"I think going to England to race always takes commitment and dedication and sacrifice, but for a girl to do it, it makes it doubly so. Forgetting the fact that she did very well over there, just the fact that she was even there spoke volumes in my mind. That's what really convinced me that it was worth giving her an opportunity."
Patrick responded by taking the pole for last year's Long Beach Grand Prix pro-celebrity race and beating IRL driver Sarah Fisher and former Trans-Am champion Tommy Kendall.
No big deal, she says.
"I expected to beat her. I expected to beat Tommy Kendall. It was just another driver out there that I was confident that I could beat. I think for other people it was more important. For people outside, it was like, 'OK, she beats Sarah Fisher, she's an Indy Car driver; Tommy Kendall, an ex-champ Trans Am driver' -- it convinced everyone else, but I believe in myself."
At 5-foot-1 and 100 pounds, keeps trim with weightlifting, runs of 3-6 miles and yoga in a 100-degree room. She even did a photo shoot for FHM magazine.
"I like to keep my body surprised at what I'm doing. Your body gets used to getting up at 6 a.m., it gets used to eating at 6 p.m. Your body gets into a routine and surprising your body is another discipline that keeps it at peak condition," she said.
"I've never said that a female can't do what a guy does, but it just takes longer physically. I don't think we have the muscle regrowth -- our frame is smaller. It take a little more time."
She also works on the mental aspect of racing.
"I just run the track through my mind. I usually do a lap or two before I get out there and I just envision myself doing it perfect. I'll do a corner over in my mind if I don't do it perfect in my mind. Your mind sometimes just doesn't do it right and you correct it."
Her first season in the Toyota Atlantic series has produced highs and lows.
It started high, with a podium finish at Monterrey, Mexico. Milwaukee added a sixth-place finish. The lows were hitting the wall in lap 19 at Long Beach to finish 14th, and a first-lap disaster at Laguna Seca.
Joey Hand spun coming out of Turn 6 and she and Bryan Sellers dodged right, but Sellers hit the brakes, sending Patrick over his right rear and into the tire barrier to end her day a mile into the race.
After this weekend's Toyota Atlantic in Portland, she will climb into a 550 Ferrari for an American Le Mans Series race at Road Atlanta.
Rahal, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion, sees the ups and downs as developmental.
"Third right out of the block is fantastic, far better than I had hoped. We had a little problem in Long Beach, but we really didn't give her a very good car, and we'll take the blame for that. Milwaukee -- she did a very good job," he said.
"She's a racer and we've always looked at this as being a long-term program -- that this one year wasn't going to be the determinant. ... I think she's doing very well and we're going to try to help her continue to improve."