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Leading lady

Chicago Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS -- Danica Patrick is the first lady of auto racing, and the title is more than a nickname.

It has been her calling card since 2005, when she led the fabled Indianapolis 500 for 19 laps before finishing fourth. Patrick was a fresh-faced 23-year-old and the performance transformed her into a cover girl, a star, the poster child for open-wheel racing in this country.

But her ride since then hasn’t been the smoothest. Patrick was a consistent contender on the IndyCar circuit, but she couldn’t break through and win. Certain cynics derided her as racing’s version of Anna Kournikova, the style-over-substance glamour girl who never won a pro tennis tournament.

Last month, however, Patrick put the Kournikova comparisons to rest and solidified her status as a competent, competitive driver with a dramatic victory in the Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. She became the first woman to win a race in the IndyCar series, which dates to 1909.

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Patrick was in the history books, and the mania about her was in full flower. Her already formidable marketing machine kicked into overdrive. Patrick did more than 100 interviews in the week that followed, setting down in Los Angeles and New York and places in between.

The attention has hardly abated in Indianapolis, where today she will go off as one of the favorites in the 92nd running of the 500, a race that has attracted all the top open-wheel drivers as it seeks to regain its stature as the nation’s biggest.

“I’m very confident. There’s no reason why I can’t win this race,” Patrick said.

What a commotion that would cause.

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At 26, she already is one of those rare one-name celebrities, simply Danica, as Tiger is simply Tiger, as Serena is simply Serena. She graced the cover of last week’s Sports Illustrated, and any appearance she makes causes a stir, produces stares and whispers and draws autograph seekers by the dozens.

“Let’s just say that it’s very difficult to go out in my hometown [Phoenix] and have a drink at the bar,” Patrick said during a quiet moment at her garage.

And here at Indianapolis?

“It was big in ’05,” Patrick said. “But this is probably. . . . There’s more attention this year, more recognition, being noticed by the fans a little more.

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“It’s very difficult to go anywhere. It’s difficult to stop for everyone who says something. I try to do the best for kids. But there’s always a herd of people waiting outside each door, waiting for autographs at the garages.

“I don’t remember that happening. More people just know who I am now.”

She certainly knows who she is, and, just as important, she knows the exalted status she has achieved. But unlike many in her class who shun the spotlight, she welcomes it, thrives in it and uses it to her advantage. For 50 minutes she will prove this while sitting behind a table and smartly fielding questions that rarely deal with her craft.

They instead revolve around her family plans (no children on the horizon) and her broad appeal (from kids to middle-aged men proposing marriage), about her future plans (fashion, owning a winery) and, most frequently, her exposure and her place at the pinnacle.

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“I’ve stayed very regular with the media scene,” Patrick said. “I recognize the value of it.” It’s one answer that’s symbolic of many.

“I know how much it helps myself, my brand and the people who are on my chest, the sponsors and the teams and of course the league I’m in,” she said. “So I do it. I’m not one of those drivers who sits back and says, ‘I’m tired today. I’m not going to do anything. It’s not worth it.’

“It’s worth it, it’s worth it, it’s worth it.”

That persona is one side of her life now, probably the more prominent side. Without meaning to, she prepared herself for it back in the days when she and her sister Brooke played a game called Beauty Shop.

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“We would do each other’s hair and makeup and take pictures,” Patrick said. “That’s pretty much a photo shoot. I enjoyed doing that when I was young, and I wasn’t getting anything from it but a lot of pictures. So this is stuff that I enjoy, that I don’t really see as being work.”

But that “stuff” is certainly not all of her being, and the emphasis on it obscures the often-forgotten reality that is her other side. Patrick is an accomplished driver, a fierce competitor, a strong-willed, courageous athlete who has earned both her status and the respect of those with whom she roars around racetracks at speeds exceeding 200 mph in a dangerous dash to the checkered flag.

She may not be universally loved in the pits, and the attention she receives could engender resentment. It’s hardly befitting the winner of one race.

But it has not alienated Patrick from the community of drivers.

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“Some people could have been bugged about it, but I don’t really mind,” said Tony Kanaan, her Andretti Green teammate. “I’m in racing to win races, not to be famous. That’s the same [for her].

“But she gets more attention, and I think it’s obvious why. If I jump into a sport that’s all women and I [finish] ahead of them, I’d be drawing more attention too. Some guys, I believe they get jealous. But it’s reality, guys -- let’s face it.

“She’s big. She’s good for the sport. She brings fans. I want her to bring fans.” Then Kanaan smiles. “Then I’ll steal them from her.”

Vitor Meira, her former Rahal Letterman Racing teammate, says the style-over-substance perception is not valid.

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“Not only is she a good driver, she is a she,” Meira said. “I don’t think this is because of her personality. She is very good, the best female driver who has appeared so far. Her personality helps [the image], but it didn’t create it. If she wasn’t fast, it wouldn’t happen.”

Her 50 minutes in public over, Patrick is out the door and around the corner and riding back to her garage on the back of a golf cart.

On the move, she is reminded of all those questions that dealt with off-the-track issues, and she’s asked whether she wished she were regarded more as a driver than a symbol, a marketing tool, a face of a series.

She hesitates before replying.

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“Of course I want to be known as a driver. Of course I do,” Patrick said. “But with the amount of exposure, there’s already a lot about the driving. So there’s another side.”

At her garage, she hops off the cart, hustles past autograph-seekers and goes through a door, only to stop and lean back against a cabinet. She had spoken earlier of being tired, and her fatigue is so obvious that she is finally asked whether it’s still fun being Danica.

“It is fun,” Patrick said. “It’s exciting. It’s different. It’s always changing. . . . I enjoy life changing. I enjoy the unexpected. That’s the life I’ve always lived. I don’t know much different.”

--

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Indianapolis 500 lineup

Lineup for today’s race (10 a.m. PDT, Channel 7):

*--* PP NO. DRIVER CAR MPH ROW 1 1 9 Scott Dixon Dallara 226.366 2 10 Dan Wheldon Dallara 226.110 3 6 Ryan Briscoe Dallara 226.080 ROW 2 4 3 Helio Castroneves Dallara 225.733 5 7 Danica Patrick Dallara 225.197 6 11 Tony Kanaan Dallara 224.794 ROW 3 7 26 Marco Andretti Dallara 224.417 8 4 Vitor Meira Dallara 224.346 9 27 r-Hideki Mutoh Dallara 223.887 ROW 4 10 20 Ed Carpenter Dallara 223.835 11 12 Tomas Scheckter Dallara 223.496 12 99 Townsend Bell Dallara 222.539 ROW 5 13 06 r-Graham Rahal Dallara 222.531 14 14 Darren Manning Dallara 222.430 15 18 Bruno Junqueira Dallara 222.330 ROW 6 16 02 r-Justin Wilson Dallara 222.267 17 15 Buddy Rice Dallara 222.101 18 22 Davey Hamilton Dallara 222.017 ROW 7 19 16 r-Alex Lloyd Dallara 221.788 20 17 r-Ryan Hunter-Reay Dallara 221.579 21 24 John Andretti Dallara 221.550 ROW 8 22 67 Sarah Fisher Dallara 221.246 23 8 r-Will Power Dallara 221.136 24 41 Jeff Simmons Dallara 221.103 ROW 9 25 5 r-Oriol Servia Dallara 220.767 26 33 r-E.J. Viso Dallara 220.356 27 23 Milka Duno Dallara 220.305 ROW 10 28 19 r-Mario Moraes Dallara 219.716 29 36 r-Enrique Bernoldi Dallara 219.422 30 34 r-Jaime Camara Dallara 219.345 ROW 11 31 2 A.J. Foyt IV Dallara 219.184 32 91 Buddy Lazier Dallara 219.015 33 25 Marty Roth Dallara 218.965 *--*

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Notes: Lap length, 2.5 miles; r-rookie.


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