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Nobody Had an Impact Like Patrick Did in 2005

Ricky Carmichael, Dan Wheldon, Sebastien Bourdais, Steve Kinser, Tony Stewart and Tony Schumacher dominated their brands of motor sport in 2005 with records and results almost unheard of. Yet all of them were overshadowed by a 5-foot-2 woman with a pretty face and a heavy foot who never finished higher than fourth in any race all season.

Danica Patrick, a rookie open-wheel car driver for Rahal Letterman Racing, will be remembered longer, and by more people -- some of whom never had the slightest interest in racing -- than all of this year’s champions of the sport. Two days in May, one on which she almost won the pole for the Indianapolis 500, and another when she almost won the legendary race, projected her image on the nation’s consciousness in a way that even the overkill of NASCAR Nation public relations couldn’t match.

It also served to remind us that the Indy 500 is still “the greatest spectacle in racing,” despite the hordes of fans who flock to Nextel Cup races week after week.

A protege of former Indy winner Bobby Rahal, Patrick first hit the headlines when she ran a 229.880 mph in practice for the 500. It was the fastest lap of the month of May, and on qualifying day only a slight bobble at the start of her four-lap trial kept her from starting alongside pole-sitter Tony Kanaan on race day. She started fourth, higher than any woman before her.

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In the race, the 23-year-old Patrick was leading with six laps left before she ran low on fuel and could not hold off Dan Wheldon.

If it had started raining, or if there had been a major accident between laps 190 and 193, a woman would have won the 500. It was that close.

In all, she led three times for 19 laps and her fourth-place finish got her picture on just about every front page and magazine cover in the country, including Sports Illustrated.

However, Patrick’s meteoric performance at Indianapolis led to unrealistic expectations. When she failed to notch a victory the rest of the Indy Racing League season, it was easy for naysayers to toss sour grapes at her. What they overlook is the fact that she was a rookie, fresh out of the Toyota Atlantic learning series, and that Indianapolis was only her fifth race. She also won three poles -- at Kansas, Kentucky and Chicago. No driver won any more than three.

She was named rookie of the year for the Indy 500 and the IRL season, in which she finished 12th.

“That was my goal at the beginning of the year, to be both Indy 500 and IndyCar series rookie of the year,” Patrick said. “That is the goal of every rookie driver. Now my next goal is to win a race. We won three poles and that is pretty good for a rookie. But to win a race is what every driver strives for in racing.”

She didn’t win a race, but she did win Paul Hospenthal, a physical therapist 16 years her senior. They were married Nov. 19 in a private ceremony in Scottsdale, Ariz., where they reside. Patrick met Hospenthal while seeking treatment for a hip injury. She was 20 at the time. It was difficult to keep her in the proper perspective as a driver. Some misguided driver-of-the-year panelists even nominated her for auto racing’s top award in quarterly voting, ignoring the fact that she finished fourth behind Wheldon, Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta in the 500. But if the award were for attracting attention to the sport, Danicamania would have been a runaway winner.

Yet 2005 saw some of racing’s finest individual performances, such as:

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* Carmichael, 26, won every event in the AMA outdoor motocross season for the second consecutive year and also won the world and national supercross championships. He also led the U.S. team to victory in Motocross des Nations, won the U.S. Open of Supercross and was named AMA pro athlete of the year for the fourth time. He did all this despite switching makes, from Honda to Suzuki, and returning from a season-long injury.

* Kinser, 51, won a remarkable 26 World of Outlaws winged sprint car races to capture the series championship for the 20th time. The Bloomington, Ind., veteran won 13 poles and finished 63 times in the top five out of 82 races in his Quaker State Maxim. No one else won more than nine races or had more than 31 top five finishes.

* Stewart, 34, was a far more dominant Nextel Cup champion than his narrow points margin over Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards would indicate. Under NASCAR’s pre-Chase for the Cup scoring, Joe Gibbs’ Chevrolet driver would have been a runaway winner. He won five races, had 17 top-five finishes and led the series in races led, laps led, miles led and laps completed.

* Wheldon, 27, won the Indianapolis 500 and an Indy Racing League record six wins in 17 starts for the Andretti Green Racing team, driving a Honda-powered Dallara. The gregarious Englishman also won the Jerry Titus Award as the American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Assn. driver of the year. He has switched teams and will defend his title in 2006 with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

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* Bourdais, 26, won five of six races in one stretch to easily win his second consecutive Champ Car World Series open-wheel championship. The Flying Frenchman, driving a Ford Cosworth-powered Lola for Newman-Haas racing, finished with six wins and five poles in 13 races. He started the year by winning the Long Beach Grand Prix and was never seriously challenged the remainder of the season. Bourdais also won an International Race of Champions.

* Schumacher, 36, won the National Hot Rod Assn. top fuel championship by a record 415 points. Driving for his father Don Schumacher’s U.S. Army team, he closed the 23-event season by winning the last five Powerade events, 20 consecutive rounds and had a record 11 No. 1 qualifying times. It was the Canoga Park driver’s third championship and second in a row with Alan Johnson as his crew chief.

All impressive, but who is still the most talked about race-car driver in the country? No doubt about it, the year 2005 has been Danica time. And the provocative cover on “ESPN the Magazine’s” Hot & Cool issue didn’t hurt.


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