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Patrick accepted the offer, and at 16 she quit high school and flew overseas for the first time. At the airport to see her off, her family cried their eyes out; Danica didn't shed a tear.
IT WASN'T an easy time for her, though. Renting space on the living room couch of a woman who lived in Milton Keynes, England, she quickly developed a severe case of homesickness. Worse, at every track on which Patrick raced, she was slow. She felt that she received the worst equipment and the worst crew chief her team had to offer (several people interviewed for this story agreed with this assessment), and this further dampened her spirits. Trying to fit in with the male drivers from England, Australia, South Africa, France and Germany, Patrick, the only female in the series, did what they did: headed to the pubs several nights a week. By her own admission Patrick sometimes drank too much, and she gained weight. Rumors swirled that she was a party girl and not dedicated to racing, and eventually this scuttlebutt reached the ears of Mecom, who stopped funding Patrick after one season. "I wasn't doing anything different than the guys were," Patrick says, "but because I was a girl, people started talking."
With no financial backing, Patrick persuaded her dad to underwrite her career, promising to curtail her bar time. She spent two more unremarkable years in England, often crying over the phone to her family deep into the night. She came home in the summer of 2001. "We basically were out of money," says T.J., "and it was looking like it was over."
Still, Danica and T.J. began attending Indy races, following the circuit from stop to stop in '01. Danica would beg every owner in the garage for a chance, but no one in the league bit. Feeling sorry for the Patricks, owner Bobby Rahal, who had met Danica in England, let them hang out in his hospitality area whenever they were trackside. Then, before a race in Milwaukee in June '02, Patrick once more popped the question to him: Will you let me drive for you?
"I said, 'O.K., I'll sign you to a three-year deal,'" recalls Rahal. "My team thought I was crazy. But in this business you need a person to take a chance on you. I was not confident that she would succeed, but I thought there was a chance."
In 2004, driving for Rahal in the Toyota Atlantic Series—the Triple A of IndyCar—Patrick had 10 top fives in 12 races and wound up third in the final standings. Rahal elevated her to his IndyCar team the following season, but aside from her impressive fourth in the 500, Patrick struggled, failing to crack the top three in any race. Rival drivers would tell you, while safely off the record, that she was all style and no substance, and when she wrecked because of an aggressive move, you could often hear comments like, Well, it must be that time of the month.
"As a woman, if you don't perform, you'll never be accepted here," says Sarah Fisher, who has made 67 IndyCar starts. "But now Danica is in the best equipment you can get, so she's set up to succeed."
After the 2006 season Patrick moved to Andretti Green Racing. AGR has as many resources as any team in the series, and its drivers are famous for sharing information with each other, which is commonplace in NASCAR but rare in IndyCar. It's this kind of teamwork that makes the AGR trio of Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti the favorites to win this year's 500.
"Danica has as good a shot as anyone," says Helio Castroneves, a two-time 500 champion who drives for Team Penske. "She no longer overdrives her car. If her car is bad, she won't push it and wreck. But if her car is good, she'll get everything she can out of it. She's really grown."
THE IMPROMPTU party began soon after Singapore Airlines flight SQ12 lifted off from Tokyo's Narita International Airport on the evening of April 20. Up in business class, on her way back to Phoenix, where she lives with her husband, Paul Hospenthal, Patrick, her parents and rival drivers Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon toasted Patrick's victory earlier that day. On the plane the pineapple juice and vodkas flowed as the revelers enjoyed themselves so thoroughly that the flight attendants eventually cut them off—the one time all weekend that Patrick was slowed.