As the IRL revs up for the Indy 500, Danicamania continues to drive the sport.Now, can the racer outrun the hype?
High above themain gate of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a 19-foot-square banner flapped inthe early-evening breeze--the beaming visage of Danica Patrick beckoning racefans to the Brickyard. "Wow, that's reallllly cool," said Patrick, whowent bug-eyed upon seeing her larger-than-life likeness looming over the cornerof 16th Street and Georgetown Road. Seated in the backseat of a black ChevyTrailblazer, zooming toward the Speedway infield on May 5, the 24-year-oldPatrick still found it bewildering that she had become the face of the IndyRacing League.
Nearly 12 monthshave passed since Danicamania first gripped the motor sports world, whenPatrick, an IRL rookie, led the Indy 500 for 19 laps and finished fourth--thebest showing ever by a woman driver in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Andthough rain last weekend washed out the first two days of qualifying for thisyear's race, Patrick's celebrity continued to cast a glow over the Indy racingscene. Since her run last May, attendance at IRL races is up 9% over theprevious year; in '05 TV ratings for the series jumped 55% on ABC and 33% onESPN; and sales of all IRL-related merchandise was up 75% (with Danica-relateditems outselling those of other drivers 10 to 1).
"Danica hasbrought a ton of attention to the IRL, which is a great thing," says SamHornish Jr., one of the favorites in this year's Indy 500 (box). "But notall the drivers have a great opinion of her. Some think she's taking the gloryaway from them. She's the best female driver I've ever seen, but in a lot ofguys' minds she still has a lot to prove."
Though Patricktook three pole positions in 2005, finished 12th in the final point standingsand was named Rookie of the Year, she has yet to win an IRL race in 19 careerstarts. In two races this season she has finished sixth and eighth. (Patrick'sRahal-Letterman team withdrew from the season opener at Homestead-MiamiSpeedway in March after driver Paul Dana was killed in a crash duringpractice.) On Saturday she and 35 or 36 other drivers will try to qualify forthe 33 starting spots on the Indy grid.
Unlike last year,when Patrick made a strong run for the pole and qualified fourth, herexpectations this spring are more modest. During May practice sessions all ofthe Rahal-Letterman drivers--Patrick, 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice and JeffSimons--have had trouble finding grip through the corners; as a result, theirlap times have been consistently slower than those of Marlboro Team Penskedrivers Hornish and Helio Castroneves (a two-time Indy winner) and the TargetChip Ganassi Racing duo of Scott Dixon and 2005 IRL champ Dan Wheldon.
"We need tomake the most of our pit strategy during the race and try to get to thefront," said Patrick. "I really want to do well. It would mean a lotfor me and, hopefully, for the series."
Patrick wassitting in a near-empty lounge in the media center at the Speedway, herfour-carat diamond wedding ring sparkling under the lights. Last November shemarried Paul Hospenthal, a physical therapist, in a small ceremony in Phoenix.For their honeymoon they traveled to Fiji, where Patrick was thrilled to getaway--from the double takes at the grocery store, the daily interview requests,the questions of when will she finally take a checkered flag. But even at theremote resort, which housed only 16 guests, a woman from San Franciscorecognized her as "that girl who almost won the Indy 500."
"The attentionis flattering," said Patrick. "Now it's time to perform on thetrack."
Class of theField
On May 28 the green flag drops for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500.Who will end up chugging milk in Victory Lane? Here are SI's picks for thefirst five across the line.
1. SAM HORNISHJR.
Though he's never finished better than 14th in six starts in the 500, theOhio-born Hornish (above), who drives for the powerful Penske team, hasdominated practice this year with laps that have consistently been among thequickest.
At week's end Wheldon, the defending Indy 500 and IRL series champion, had thefastest practice lap, 228.663 mph.
A two-time Indy winner, Hornish's teammate is the IRL's hottest driver; he hastwo victories in 2006.
The 2004 IRL champ has battled an ill-handling car in practice, but he'll be afactor in the race; in his last three Indy 500s the Brazilian star has twicefinished in the top three.
The Rahal-Letterman Hondas are struggling through the corners, but the teamknows how to win at Indy; with a mistake-free drive, Patrick can again be acontender.
> More Indy500 coverage and analysis at SI.com/racing.
BRENT SMITH/REUTERS (PATRICK)
SHE'SBACK - Patrick may lead the IRL in photo ops, but she's still looking for herfirst IRL win.
FRED VUICH (CAR)
MICAHEL CONROY/AP (HORNISH)