"I would hate to get beaten by a girl, so I can't imagine how the guys must feel." Some of the guys better get used to it, because one of the top prospects in road racing today is a 20-year-old woman from Indiana named Danica Patrick.

Patrick is a petite 5 ft 1 in, but not a wispy Hollywood petite. Think of the taut muscularity of an Olympic gymnast. A firm handshake reinforces the impression of fitness, but its almost exaggerated firmness evokes notions of coached first impressions.

"When I was 14, I wanted to win the Indy 500," she recalls. "But my present goal is to race in [Toyota] Atlantics and in a couple years be in CART."

Patrick spent her formative years in karts before moving to England to race Formula Vauxhall Junior and Formula Ford. The result was the best performance by an American driver at the famed Formula Ford Festival, where Patrick matched Danny Sullivan's 1972 runner-up finish.

Now, she has returned to the U.S. and is gearing up for a season in the Toyota Atlantic series for 2003 driving for Team Rahal. Patrick concluded 2002 with some tune-up races in the Barber Dodge Pro Series, after missing most of the season when the BMW M3 GTR she was contracted to pilot for Team PTG was banished from the American Le Mans Series.

Patrick earned a seat in the M3 at a December test at Sebring. In a car she'd never driven (she had never even raced a "tin top" before) at a track she'd never seen, she ran times that gave veteran Bill Auberlen fits. Irritated that she'd topped his times, Auberlen went back out on fresh rubber, just to make sure everyone knew he could go faster still. Regardless of who was faster on which tires, clearly Patrick was right there. Team boss Tom Milner signed her up on the spot, before his season's plans unraveled. "She was very fast," said Milner. "Definitely the fastest women racer I've ever seen."

So 2002 didn't exactly work out as planned. And that was coming off an aborted 2001 campaign in British Formula Ford. Following her runner-up performance at the 2000 Ford Festival, Patrick had high hopes for 2001, but the Mygale cars provided by Haywood Racing weren't competitive with the Van Diemens, and the shortcomings made them particularly unsuitable for Patrick's driving style.

The cars are so bad for 2002 that the factory-backed team switched to year-old Van Diemens in an effort to stay competitive.

Like most young drivers today, Patrick started in karts, winning numerous World Karting Association championships between 1992 and 1997. Unlike most American drivers, when she graduated from karts she went to Formula Vauxhall Junior in England. Britain is the center of open-wheel road racing in the world, and Patrick concluded at the tender age of 16 that if she was really going to make a living racing, she'd have to go there for an apprenticeship.

So at an age when most American girls are comparing prom dresses, Patrick was comparing damper settings. "In my eyes it wasn't really a sacrifice at all," Patrick said. "I wasn't missing out; I was doing bigger and better things."

Patrick ran the Formula Vauxhall Junior winter championship in 1998, and the 14-race summer series in 1999, finishing tenth in the championship before moving on to Formula Ford.

The '01 season was especially tough because her male teammates were wringing better finishes from the Mygales than Patrick. That was because their driving styles were more aggressive and ragged, according to David Henderson, who was in charge of drive development at Haywood.

"She was very smooth," recalled Henderson. "The car really needed to be taken by the scruff of the neck. She did a good job, but the car wasn't what we hoped it would be. It hampered her more than the others because of her driving style."

Ford Motor Company, Patrick's patron in the series, suspected that its money was being used to subsidize other drivers in the team, and that Patrick wasn't getting the best engineers to tune her car, said John Szymanski, For Racing Sponsor Development Manager.

Patrick had caught the eye of Jackie Stewart and Bobby Rahal, who put her in touch with Ford. "My son races karts, so I saw her name in the karting magazines," said Rahal.

"It really impressed me that at such a young age she would leave home and go to live in England," Rahal continued. "That spoke volumes about her commitment. A lot of young people say they want to be race car drivers, but not many are willing to do the things you have to do."

"And I have to tell you it's not easy for an American to live in that society," said Rahal, who raced in England when he was a young man, and did another brief and unhappy stint last year as head of Jaguar Formula One. "Certainly I think, let's face it, motor racing has not been the most open for the female gender and particularly in England," he said. "So all of those things just, in my mind, spoke volumes about her commitment and dedication to what she wanted to achieve."

Ford's racing department agreed. "We decided to go on to a program with her where we supported her efforts in British Formula Ford," said Szymanski. "There were also some management efforts on her behalf."

"But they terminated her running in England because they felt she wasn't getting the technical support she needed," he said. "Our suspicions were they were using her money to run everybody else. She wasn't getting the best equipment and the best mechanic."

Rahal's plan was to put Patrick into the company's Paul Stewart Racing Formula 3 development program, which it had acquired along with the Stewart Formula One team. But before Patrick's scheduled test in the car, Rahal was dismissed by Ford racing boss Niki Lauda, who immediately discontinued the F3 program to concentrate on the struggling Jaguar F1 team.

In a move that would have landed Patrick on her feet for 2002, she tested for Team PTG, and was subsequently signed to race for them this year. However PTG's BMW M3 GTR fell afoul of racing politics and was effectively banned, so Patrick found herself out of a ride for the season. She did participate in the Toyota celebrity race at the Long Beach CART race, and won that against some stiff competition.

Toyota was keen to see Patrick in the Atlantic series, but as title sponsor and engine supplier, couldn't afford to be seen as favoring one driver by providing Patrick sponsorship. Finally, mid-season, Rahal put together a plan to run Patrick in Toyota Atlantic for 2003, and supported her in a few late-season Barber Dodge Pro Series races to brush up.

Patrick remains contracted with both Ford and BMW meanwhile. Although she wasn't able to race for BMW in 2001, the company provides her with a car, and she does promotional work for the company, such as driving cars in vintage exhibitions and instructing students at the company's high performance driving school. Instructors at the company's South Carolina performance center smirk at the memory of the petite "girl" teaching some of the company's older, wealthy, male customers how to really drive their cars.

Ford, too, hopes Patrick will fit into the company's racing future. But Ford is committed to oval racing, given the poor state of road racing in the U.S. "She has an impressive personality and she is just plain quick," said Szymanski. "We like her devotion to the sport," he added. "There is no doubt that the fact that she is a woman is interesting to a company like Ford. We'd like to see in Busch and Winston Cup."

The company has tested Patrick in one of its new spec midget racers powered by the Ford Focus engine, and she spent a day in a NASCAR Busch Grand National Thunderbird at a short track. The stock car was completely different from formula cars, with its hard tires and huge mass, but Patrick ran competitive times. "The car really didn't stop very well," she observed. Knowing Patrick's heart is in road racing, the team conducting the test tried to convert her to ovals. "They said, 'Come on, are you ready to race the car yet?'" after she turned quick laps, Patrick said.

But while being paid to race on ovals beats not getting paid to race, it is still second to road racing in Patrick's opinion. And while Ford would love to have a photogenic young woman in one of its stock cars (think of the sponsorship possibilities!), the company has been understanding of her priorities, Patrick said.

"They respect the fact that I want to do open-wheel racing," she said. Ford and the team were interested in having her do additional tests and maybe race the car, "but I didn't want to waste their money," she said.

So next season pay particular attention to the Toyota Atlantic series, if you want to get a look at the driver who may finally be (after a few false alarms), the female racer who can take on the best of the men. We can't wait to see how it turns out.

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