DAYTONA BEACH --It's not that there haven't been any women racers before, including some who made their way to a Victory Lane here and there at various levels of motorsports.
Problem is, the list is hardly a scroll. Therefore, Danica Patrick, who can appear so steely, so self-assured, so focused, gives an honest and somewhat surprising admission.
"I cannot blame people for wondering if a girl can drive," she said Friday, the day before her debut in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, which begins today at noon at Daytona International Speedway.
Patrick, who last year became perhaps the most famous non-champion in racing history, has answered that question time and time again -- in the affirmative, by the way. But it's not always easy.
Just a few weeks ago, during the first day of sportscar testing, she jumped behind the wheel of the No. 2 Daytona Prototype for her initial laps. Don't listen to what anyone else might say, she says now, that test was pure audition.
"They didn't know if I could drive the car yet," she says. "I think everybody kinda knows, but they don't know for sure, so the safest option is to make it a test."
Spend any time around Patrick, and you'd assume there was never a doubt in her mind about that early January test session. But, though her 100-pound frame doesn't appear to have any wasted flesh, there seems to be an ounce or two of healthy doubt.
"I'm sure there's something inside of me that always says, 'I can drive it,' " she says. "It has to be there for me to be able to do it. But I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't nervous before I got in a car every time. Especially in new ones, because you always wonder, 'Is this the car, is this the style of driving I'm not going to adapt to well?' "
So Patrick started the car, fully depressed the clutch, and threw it into first gear.
And stopped, cold.
Turns out, there was a problem with the clutch that wouldn't allow the car to be put into gear without an accompanying revving of the engine. But nobody knew that at the time. All they knew, or thought they knew, was, "The girl stalled the car."
"They were saying, 'You gotta keep your clutch down,' " Patrick remembers of her strange introduction. "I was like, 'I know that. I have a road car too.' "
Later, back at the shop, team leader Max Crawford's crew found the problem, and Patrick can now chuckle about it and assure everyone, "So, I'm not an idiot."
INDY CHANGED EVERYTHING
Before last spring, Danica Patrick was basically known only to those who follow a wide range of auto racing. She was the pint-sized, 23-year-old who successfully climbed the racing ranks and landed in an Indy Racing League car owned by Indy-car legend Bobby Rahal.
Then in May, it all changed. She was fast at Indy. Very fast, actually -- she turned the fastest practice lap (a tick under 230 mph) of the month, then qualified fourth for the Indianapolis 500. When she led 19 laps in the 500, including several in the very late stages, and eventually finished fourth, she officially became The Girl Racer, a cover-girl celebrity in a form of auto racing desperately in need of an attention-grabber.
So Danica became the overnight poster child for the IRL, but not without a certain amount of detractors. Englishman Dan Wheldon won the Indy 500 on his way to a series championship, but he was overshadowed. Not everyone was happy about that. Patrick was getting a disproportionate amount of attention simply because of her gender, and many -- specifically the old-schoolers and those with absolutely no sense of marketing -- took exception.
Wheldon became the subject of some people's pity, but fact is, he probably got more attention than he would have otherwise if Patrick had finished, say, 30th. Eight months later, he seems to know that.
"It raised the profile of the series, and that's good for everybody," says Wheldon. "I think she deserves a lot of the attention she gets. She had an exceptional first year, especially at the Indy 500."
That attention has been spread to a new audience this week. Daytona's 24-hour race, in recent years, has taken on the look of an international convention of racing greats -- this weekend, 73 drivers in the field have won championships on a national level. But along with attracting talent and organizing a world-class endurance event, for the landlord the Rolex is also about selling tickets. And if you want to sell tickets in racing today ...
"Danica ... she's just a promoter's dream," says Robin Braig, president of Daytona International Speedway. "We wanted to get the Danica news out as quickly as we could, because we knew there would be an up-tick in ticket sales. You can be as creative as you want with chili cookoffs and fireworks and Ferris wheels, but the real test is what's on the track and the field of drivers."
PEOPLE ARE WATCHING
Through the first two days of practice, this unique event has been a real eye-opener for Patrick. She's accustomed to the attention, and realizes the positives that come from it, but normally it's at arm's length.
"There's so much more access here. People are inside the garages, inside the tents, just able to roam," she says. "Sometimes that can get in the way a little bit, but at the end of the day, they're fans, and without the fans, things are very difficult. I'm always flattered by how many there are. We're working on that in Indy-car too, how can we get more of them."
One of Patrick's co-drivers this week is former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace. Current Nextel Cup champ Tony Stewart is a teammate on one of the other three cars in the Howard-Boss stable. It's no surprise that the three Howard-Boss garage stalls have become a popular hangout for the fans.
And coincidentally, if those fans shift their gazes, they'll see another "girl in a guy's world" -- Catherine Wallace, crew chief for the team's flagship No. 4 car. The 27-year-old daughter of team boss Max Crawford (and new wife of veteran driver Andy Wallace) is one of the few who can relate to Patrick.
"Sometimes you really feel like you have something to prove, but you don't want to be the girl with a chip on her shoulder," says Catherine. "It's a fine balance.
"She's a nice girl," she says of Patrick. "She said the same thing: 'Sometimes I feel like I have to prove something.' All she has to prove is that she can drive, and all I have to prove is that I can run a car."
Sometimes, the job itself seems to be a welcome relief compared with explaining to everyone why you want the job, how you got the job, and why you deserve the job. For Danica Patrick, life would be much more straightforward if she wasn't The Girl Racer, but she wouldn't change things even if she could.
"There's never been a time in my life when I wished I was a guy racer," says Patrick. "I'm very comfortable where I am. I know very well that it draws attention, but you also get the pessimism, and you get some slight disbelief here and there. And that's the kind of stuff that's very difficult to break and make people believe in you.
"People are watching, whether you do well or you don't do well. I think that I'm in a fortunate situation where people are ready. The fans are ready, and everybody's ready for something different -- a woman to do well. When I do well, it's a good thing and people go with it, people run with it. I'm very lucky."
DID YOU KNOW?
In 1977, more than 25 years before Danica Patrick made a splash at the 2005 Indianapolis 500, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to start in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.
· In four years of NASCAR racing, Guthrie started 33 races, finishing in the top 10 five times. She earned $78,309 over the four years.
· Guthrie had a widely diverse background before starting her racing career -- she was a pilot and flight instructor, an aerospace engineer, and a technical editor.
-- Compiled by News Researcher Peggy Ellis
SOURCES: www.janetguthrie.com; NASCAR Encyclopedia