Sports views

On this night, Danica just another one of the boys

Posted: Sunday, June 12, 2005

She was the show all day long, just like every other day leading up to this race at the Texas Motor Speedway. Then the green flag dropped and Danica Patrick became something she hasn't been for the last month and a half:

Just another one of the boys.

The woman who brought the buzz back to open-wheel racing finished well back in the pack Saturday night at the Bombardier Learjet 500. Despite starting third, Patrick never challenged even once for the lead.

No rookie has ever won in the eight years they've been running IndyCar races over this calamitous, steep-banked oval. Despite all the expectations and twice as much hype, Patrick was no exception.

''Yeah, I'm disappointed,'' she said. ''I'm also not an idiot. I understand it takes time to learn things.

Patrick carved out her own unique corner of the sporting landscape with a sizzling qualifying time at the Indy 500 last month, followed by a thrilling spell in the lead and a gutsy fourth-place finish. Her performance goosed TV ratings in the final hour of that broadcast by almost 60 percent.

But anybody who tuned in to see her finish a lackluster 13th here — last on the lead lap — learned what the drivers who have taken a backseat to Patrick everywhere but on the race track already know: Winning is as much about experience and luck as anything else.

For all the other gifts Patrick possesses in abundance — smarts, toughness, charisma and good looks — she's still woefully short on experience.

And for one night at least, her luck stayed back at the garage. Patrick's car steered poorly in traffic, never a good thing at an oval that places a premium on nervy side-by-side racing and usually claims a third of the field in crashes. And by the time Patrick and her team finally ironed out the handling problems, it was too late to make a strong run.

''She finished here and she didn't put it in the wall,'' said Sam Hornish Jr., a former IndyCar Series champion who finished second. ''That's a good start right there.''

Winner Tomas Scheckter went even further out of his way to praise Patrick, even though she knocked him and teammate Tomas Enge out of the Indy 500 two weekends ago. That happened with only 45 laps to go, when she swerved suddenly trying to get the jump on a restart, collided with Enge and sent Scheckter spinning down to the inside wall.

Yet, when asked afterward whether ''hotshot rookies'' were receiving more attention than their accomplishments deserved, Scheckter replied, ''Those hotshot rookies put a lot of fans in the seats.

''They draw a lot of people in on TV.'' Then he added: ''Sometimes, those rookies have a lot to learn, but I'm sure they're not going to be a flash in the pan.''

Only time will tell whether Patrick pans out as a racer. But the flash part is already beyond dispute.

Her smiling face was plastered across a 20-by-40 foot canvas mural placed over the top of the Texas Motor Speedway marquee to greet the crowd streaming in. Estimates put attendance at 100,000, an increase of about 6,000 over last year. Meanwhile bidding for the broken front wing from the car Patrick drove at the Indy 500, put up for auction on eBay earlier this week, climbed to $38,900.

Earlier in the day, several hundred fans stood six deep outside her trailer in searing heat. The early arrivals were rewarded for their patience when Patrick popped out an hour before the start and walked the length of the gallery rope signing autographs in the same efficient, practiced manner Tiger Woods does at a golf tournament.

Even as fans clamored to get closer, Patrick teammate and 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice walked out of an adjoining trailer and headed toward the racetrack. No one even noticed.

Small wonder, then, that Rice and fellow Rahal Letterman Racing driver Vitor Meira showed up for the drivers' meeting at 4:15 p.m., wearing T-shirts that read ''Danica's Teammate'' and ''Danica's Other Teammate.''

Afterward, they posed for photographers separated by IndyCar series leader Dan Wheldon, who sported a message of his own. His T-shirt read, ''I Actually Won the Indy 500'' — and so he did. But it was Danica who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week.

The spotlight on Patrick will lose some of that wattage now, and it should.

What she proved at Indianapolis, and at the IndyCar races this season before that — what she's proved her entire career from go-karts forward, for that matter — is that she's capable, courageous and a quick study. But also that she's a rookie, prone to the same mistakes, frustrations and lack of experience that sometimes makes a climb up the learning curve seem like a crawl.

What's different about Patrick is that both the climbing and the crawling have been covered like she was Tiger Woods, instead of just another one of the boys. That may end for a while. But anybody who doubts her patience or her drive hasn't been paying attention.

''I can't control how much is written. I can't control what is written,'' she said. ''Some of the stuff I've done has been great for a rookie and some of it has been just what rookies do.

''These guys are incredible race drivers out there. I have a lot to learn,'' Patrick said finally, ''and I'll never stop learning.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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