Sunday, April 20, 2008

Danica Patrick: Blasting Through the Glass Ceiling at 200 mph.

Danica Patrick, Indycar Champion and
the First Woman to Win a Major Auto Race

In October of 2000, Robert and I drove to Savannah, Georgia to attend the bi-annual racing clinic and get-together known as Targa 66, an event that's organized and conducted by the legendary and much-decorated British racing champion, Brian Redman. During the day, veteran drivers and retired champs (like Brian) coach those who are relatively new to the sport (like me), and the track is also open to aficionados and current contenders interested in sharpening their skills and testing their vehicles in a non-competitive environment. On Saturday night, there's always a lovely black-tie banquet complete with an intriguing keynote speaker (for example, the president of Jaguar, or one of Brian's pals from the good old days when race car driving was even more dangerous than it is now, which is saying something.) Of course, there is also plenty of drinking and the telling of stories both hilarious and hair-raising.

Anyway, that Saturday, Robert (who'd win a major series himself the following year) and I (who, come 2003, would start my own racing adventures in a little '61 Porsche 356), were joining everyone in the hotel lobby for after-dinner drinks when American Indycar champ and current team-owner Bobby Rahal stood up, clinked a spoon against his glass, and announced that he'd like to introduce someone special.

"Joining forces with us this year, ladies and gentlemen, is someone whose name I want you to remember, because you're going to hear it a lot in the future: Danica Patrick," he said.

I didn't want to like her--hell, I wouldn't have been human if I hadn't felt a frisson of envy: here was this beautiful and poised young woman, half my age, commanding the attention of a roomful of people who, to put it mildly, were hardly the sorts who are easily impressed. But you couldn't dislike Danica, who was chattily charming and polite, not to mention articulate and mature beyond her then-teenage years. She was a tiny little thing, too, wearing a long cream-colored suede skirt and top and looking more like a dark-haired ballerina than a race-car driver--and by that I mean no slight: ballerinas may be small, but they are serious, and seriously tough, athletes.

Fast-forward a few years, and lo and behold, Danica was competing alongside the big guys all over the world, holding her own and consistently placing well. She raced in St. Petersburg, last year as well as this one, at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, though the 2008 title went to Bobby Rahal's son Graham, who at 19 is the youngest person to win an major American open wheel race.

Today, though, Danica won the IndyCar Series event in Motegi, Japan, claiming a historic banner of her own: she is the first woman to win a major auto race. And damn it if she wasn't utterly classy and full of esprit de corps:

Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a major auto race on Sunday, using successful fuel strategy to capture an IndyCar Series event in Motegi, Japan. She won the race by nearly six seconds over Helio Castroneves, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner.

Danica Patrick hugged her father, T.J. Patrick, after winning the Indy Japan 300.

Patrick, 26, who in 2005 became the first woman to lead the Indy 500, won in her 50th IndyCar Series start. Three drivers ahead of her had to stop for fuel late in the race, and Patrick took the lead from Castroneves on the 198th of 200 laps.

Patrick, the 5-foot-2, 100-pound driver who moved to the powerful team co-owned by Michael Andretti last year, won the third race of the IndyCar Series season. She credited her team for implementing the fuel strategy she needed to win the race.

“Finally! This is a long time coming,” she said in an interview in Victory Lane. “It was a fuel-strategy race, but my team called it perfectly for me. I know I was on the same strategy as Helio and when I passed him for the lead, I couldn’t believe it. This is fabulous.”

As a racing rookie (truly, I'm an über-novice), I can only tell you this: driving even a few laps at those speeds (my fastest, so far, is just 150 mph) is at once thrilling, terrifying, and exhausting. You're overjoyed to simply make it out of the car without collapsing or being sick all over yourself. And I don't exaggerate when I say I'm in awe of anyone, male or female (and yeah, okay, that includes Robert), who races often and does it spectacularly well.

But competing at that level? Against those guys and at those speeds? In that male-dominated sport?

And beating them?

BRAVA, Danica. I completely understand why you covered your face with a cap for a few emotional moments today and want you to know there were more than a few of us out here who were sniffling right along with you.

Also at Cogitamus.

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