Indy Racing League rookie Danica Patrick might be starting to accept the difficulty of her challenge. Chances are she won’t make it through a press conference this season without cracking a joke or bursting out in laughter to diffuse some of the attention on her bid to become the first woman driver to win an IndyCar Series race. “I’d take second (place) a few times, that’s no problem. That’s good still,” Patrick said last week when asked about Vitor Meira’s runner-up finish in the AMBER Alert Portal Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway. Off the track, Patrick, 23, remains as easygoing as she was when she raced go-karts with her sister as a 10-year-old. On the track, she’s trying to win, or at least improve. Patrick comes to Pikes Peak International Raceway for Sunday’s Honda Indy 225 hoping to snap a recent slide. She has finished out of the top 15 in her past three races, falling to 12th place in the standings. Few have questioned Patrick’s impact on open-wheel racing. Patrick has sparked new life into the IRL, giving racing fans reason to watch something other than NASCAR. She has ruffled the feathers of other drivers, some who have complained about her never-ending publicity and made allegations that her smaller frame gives her an unfair advantage. And she has captured the attention of the national media, never failing to become the biggest story at every IRL stop. Patrick’s backing stretches farther than a line of cars along pit road. Patrick’s parents, T.J. and Bev, who met on a blind date, live in Roscoe, Ill., and once owned a coffee shop and a plate glass company. Patrick has a younger sister, Brooke. She also has a miniature schnauzer named William Robert, or Billy for short. Patrick, who was born in Beloit, Wis., and grew up in Roscoe, is engaged to Paul Hospenthal, a 39-year-old physical therapist and athletic trainer who lives in Phoenix. Patrick and Hospenthal met three years ago when Patrick sought treatment from Hospenthal after she injured her hip during a yoga session. They’re scheduled to marry in November. At the forefront is her father, T.J. It wasn’t long ago he provided Patrick with the tools she needed to get her career off the ground. “My dad was the one with the knowledge,” Patrick said. “He knew how to prepare a go-kart and how to make it go fast. He knew about clutches and carburetors. He just knew what to do. “He played a huge role in the success that I have had, just by being smart. He gave me, through genes more than anything, the driving instinct to do what needs to be done, to be successful and to make it all the way to the top.” Patrick credits Rahal Letterman Racing’s public relations department for helping her manage her schedule so she has time for haircuts, pedicures and facials. “That stuff takes time, too,” she said. Patrick’s rise in popularity has afforded her an opportunity to meet other top female athletes, including Mia Hamm, Annika Sorenstam and Grace Park. Patrick said she has never had role models outside of her family and her racing team, however. “I didn’t have athletes or celebrities or anybody in particular that I looked to throughout my whole career,” Patrick said. “There were people along the way that I felt like I learned from. But I learned from them because I was standing next to them. “I’ve never gauged myself off of other women. Maybe that’s what has gotten me to where I am. My interest is in being the fastest and the best, not the fastest girl or the best girl.” CHERISHING THE SPOTLIGHT In 12 races, Patrick has developed a bigger following than any other IRL driver, including points leader Dan Wheldon, 2004 Indy-Car champion Tony Kanaan and two-time Indianapolis 500 champ Helio Castroneves. Fans flocked to Patrick’s truck last weekend at Kentucky Speedway, hoping to snag an autograph or get close enough to take a picture. More of the same is expected this weekend at PPIR. “I think it’s very flattering when people look up to you and notice what you’re doing,” Patrick said. “You do your best to help and accommodate and answer any questions anybody has. It’s difficult to act on everything, but you (need to) be there for questions and answers and autographs, and everything they want.” The IRL has experienced an increase in coverage, and almost every sportswriter and TV reporter at the track wants to talk to Patrick. It’s like the Indy 500 media blitz week after week. Patrick has appeared on CNN and ESPN and has made the cover of Sports Illustrated and TV Guide, among other national publications. She was nominated for an ESPY Award after she finished fourth in the Indy 500. “None of us expected this to happen,” Patrick said. “Nobody expected it to be so big and so many people interested in it. It makes before seem like I was a nobody compared to what it is now.” Patrick recognizes the importance of staying humble. “It would be easy for someone to run away with this. If they wanted to think they were hot stuff, it would be easy,” she said. “I’m aware of the fact that it can go away as easily as it came, and there’s a new hot star in town.” GOT CHECKERED? Some argue that Patrick is undeserving of so much attention, considering that she’s winless. Patrick’s defense is that drivers control their promotion. Plus, it’s hard being a rookie. Patrick has five top-10 finishes, including back-to-back fourthplace finishes in Japan and Indianapolis. She tops the standings for the Bombardier Rookie of the Year Award. But Patrick’s first IRL season has been inconsistent. Patrick appeared to be on the verge of her first victory last month, although she has failed to finish two of her past three races. She spun into the wall at The Milwaukee Mile and endured mechanical problems at Michigan International Speedway. She finished 16th at Kentucky Speedway, hampered by a faulty gearbox and a stalled engine during a pit stop. “I feel like as each race goes on that as long as I’m learning and as long as I can say that I’ve walked away with more experience, that it was a victory,” Patrick said. “We’re moving in the right direction. It’s only a matter of time until I’m running in the front more consistently, and then the inevitable will happen.” The last IRL rookie to win a race was Tomas Scheckter in 2002 at Michigan. It took Scheckter 11 starts to capture the checkered flag. Patrick will make her 13th start Sunday. “Not everybody wins in their first season. Most people don’t,” Patrick said. “You have to take into consideration what the circumstances are and how the team is performing and how you’re doing. I’d love to win a race this season. That would be my most recent dream come true. But I’m not going to let that decide whether I’ve had a good season.” Scheckter said Patrick caught his eye at Milwaukee, where Patrick ran as high as sixth before she crashed on Lap 125. “She saved the car a couple of times,” Scheckter said. “That shows heart in a driver. If they can save it, and bring it back, and save it . . . eventually she couldn’t hold on anymore, but she certainly drove.” Buddy Rice sees plenty of upside in his Rahal Letterman Racing teammate. “Like any rookie, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to take in,” Rice said. “It’s tough to make the jump, but she has done a good job.” Patrick insists she hasn’t come close to reaching her potential. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to fall into place when you’re a rookie,” she said. “It’s hard to make everything great. And if you’re not up front, it’s very difficult to make everything fall together at one race.” POISED FOR PPIR The perfect combination of speed and handling is needed to win at PPIR, where Dario Franchitti triumphed last season. Some drivers compare PPIR to The Milwaukee Mile and Phoenix International Raceway, short ovals that have caused problems for Patrick. “They always say on an oval that when you’re running good, it’s fun,” Patrick said. “When you’re not, it’s a long day.” Much of Patrick’s focus for Sunday’s race has been on improving her timing, especially during pit stops and passing attempts. Patrick has learned to trust her instincts on ovals. She never has been afraid to make adjustments to her car. “That’s what makes us drivers,” Patrick said. Patrick said she doesn’t put much stock in the theory drivers find their niche on certain tracks. “A driver is a driver,” she said. “If they’re good, they can race anywhere and run well. It’s more dependent on you adapting the car to the track and making the car work for you. That’s the most important thing.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0256 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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