INDIANAPOLIS - If the open-wheel ranks needed a jolt of positive publicity, Rahal Letterman Racing has just what the marketing folks were dreaming about - a new American star, and one with sex appeal.
Danica Patrick is 5-foot-1, petite, with long, coal-black hair, movie star looks, and the stage presence of a super model. The fact she can drive a race car 225 miles an hour is a bonus.
And any of the stodgy, old purists who thought Patrick was here as a novelty or window dressing, or as a thinly veiled publicity stunt, looked pretty foolish this past week when she posted a 227.633-mph lap in practice, the second-fastest of the month.
"Danica is a very beautiful girl, and she's a nice girl," four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt said, "and the fact is, out on the track she's done blowed away everybody else pretty bad so far. I think it's great. It'll wake up some of these deadheads around here."
Rahal, a former Indy 500 champion, did not just put an attractive young woman in one of his cars and hope that was enough.
Far from it. He signed her to a multiyear deal back in 2002 after Patrick had made a name for herself racing in England.
"I had seen Danica race and I thought she had the potential to be a big star in motor racing," Rahal said. "This girl is a race car driver first, and the fact she's female just adds to the aura surrounding her, and creates a lot of interest. But I wouldn't be spending the amount of time and money we are on her if I didn't think she could be successful."
Patrick, 23, ran in the Barber-Dodge Pro Series for Rahal in 2002, moved into the Toyota Atlantic Championship the following year, and was third on that circuit with 10 top-five finishes in 12 races in 2004.
In her rookie season in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series, Patrick is 12th in the points race after four events. Her best finish was fourth at Motegi in the most recent race.
"This is exciting and thrilling for me, but at the same time, this is what I came here to do," Patrick said from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where she will try to capture the pole for the 500 during today's first round of qualifying.
"I know I can race. I know I can race with them. I've always known that. It's just a matter of being at the right place at the right time, and having everything come together."
While Patrick's blitz to the front of the ranks in practice got everyone's attention, the confident owner of a Mercedes Benz 230 said she is not putting too much emphasis on those runs that took place when she had the track to herself.
"Obviously, I am very comfortable going fast, but the difference will be doing it with a full field of cars out there," Patrick said.
"Racing is a passion of mine, and I get the opportunity here to drive against the best in the world. Once the race starts, nobody is going to know or care about me being a woman."
Defending Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice, a teammate of Patrick at Rahal Letterman Racing, said the novelty of having a female in the race car wore off right away.
"Like I've said before, she has the talent to be here, and she has the credentials," Rice said. "She's showed it, and she's proved it in the other formulas. There's a little bit of a learning curve involved, but obviously she made a major leap this week in qualifying. She'll just keep getting better, but she's already shown she can get the job done."
Patrick, who started racing go-Karts at age 10 and was a national points champion two years later, said she understands all of the buzz that has surrounded her this past week at the Speedway, but added that she is not carrying the torch for her gender or trying to make any kind of statement, other than winning the race.
"I think my drive to be fast has always been the same, and that is to get the most I can, or the most I can handle, anyway," Patrick said.
"All of that other stuff -- it's just a different side of me. It's part marketing, because it causes a stir and it brings attention to the race and the sponsors. It's nothing more than a bit of fun, and the attention is just an added benefit."
Foyt, whose grandson A.J. Foyt IV will be battling Patrick in today's qualifying, said he has enjoyed having a woman driver in the field, and he has enjoyed her success.
"What else can you say about her - she's a very good racer, and a very pretty girl," the elder Foyt said. "I asked my grandson what it was like to have a beautiful woman like that out-run you, and he wasn't too happy about it. But I think it's great."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.39.76691 -86.14996