As the IRL revs up for the Indy 500, Danicamania continues to drive the sport.
Now, can the racer outrun the hype?
High above the
main gate of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a 19-foot-square banner flapped in
the early-evening breeze--the beaming visage of Danica Patrick beckoning race
fans to the Brickyard. "Wow, that's reallllly cool," said Patrick, who
went bug-eyed upon seeing her larger-than-life likeness looming over the corner
of 16th Street and Georgetown Road. Seated in the backseat of a black Chevy
Trailblazer, zooming toward the Speedway infield on May 5, the 24-year-old
Patrick still found it bewildering that she had become the face of the Indy
Nearly 12 months
have passed since Danicamania first gripped the motor sports world, when
Patrick, an IRL rookie, led the Indy 500 for 19 laps and finished fourth--the
best showing ever by a woman driver in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. And
though rain last weekend washed out the first two days of qualifying for this
year's race, Patrick's celebrity continued to cast a glow over the Indy racing
scene. Since her run last May, attendance at IRL races is up 9% over the
previous year; in '05 TV ratings for the series jumped 55% on ABC and 33% on
ESPN; and sales of all IRL-related merchandise was up 75% (with Danica-related
items outselling those of other drivers 10 to 1).
brought a ton of attention to the IRL, which is a great thing," says Sam
Hornish Jr., one of the favorites in this year's Indy 500 (box). "But not
all the drivers have a great opinion of her. Some think she's taking the glory
away from them. She's the best female driver I've ever seen, but in a lot of
guys' minds she still has a lot to prove."
took three pole positions in 2005, finished 12th in the final point standings
and was named Rookie of the Year, she has yet to win an IRL race in 19 career
starts. In two races this season she has finished sixth and eighth. (Patrick's
Rahal-Letterman team withdrew from the season opener at Homestead-Miami
Speedway in March after driver Paul Dana was killed in a crash during
practice.) On Saturday she and 35 or 36 other drivers will try to qualify for
the 33 starting spots on the Indy grid.
Unlike last year,
when Patrick made a strong run for the pole and qualified fourth, her
expectations this spring are more modest. During May practice sessions all of
the Rahal-Letterman drivers--Patrick, 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice and Jeff
Simons--have had trouble finding grip through the corners; as a result, their
lap times have been consistently slower than those of Marlboro Team Penske
drivers Hornish and Helio Castroneves (a two-time Indy winner) and the Target
Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Scott Dixon and 2005 IRL champ Dan Wheldon.
"We need to
make the most of our pit strategy during the race and try to get to the
front," said Patrick. "I really want to do well. It would mean a lot
for me and, hopefully, for the series."
sitting in a near-empty lounge in the media center at the Speedway, her
four-carat diamond wedding ring sparkling under the lights. Last November she
married Paul Hospenthal, a physical therapist, in a small ceremony in Phoenix.
For their honeymoon they traveled to Fiji, where Patrick was thrilled to get
away--from the double takes at the grocery store, the daily interview requests,
the questions of when will she finally take a checkered flag. But even at the
remote resort, which housed only 16 guests, a woman from San Francisco
recognized her as "that girl who almost won the Indy 500."
is flattering," said Patrick. "Now it's time to perform on the
Class of the
On May 28 the green flag drops for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Who will end up chugging milk in Victory Lane? Here are SI's picks for the
first five across the line.