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Saturday, October 15, 2011
If there's a crowd, Patrick must be there

By Jeff Wolf

LAS VEGAS -- At 5-foot-2, it is easy for Danica Patrick to be lost in a crowd, but a crowd is the best way to find her at a race.

She has been the Pied Piper at every race she has entered in her pro career. She's a magnet at IndyCar or NASCAR events and has been voted Most Popular Driver in the IndyCar series six straight years.

It's been no different at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this week during the season finale of the Izod IndyCar Series.

Patrick's team transporter is the only one with throngs of fans waiting nearby hoping for a glimpse of her and maybe the chance for an autograph.

First one, then five and eventually 50 or so gathered there Friday between practice and qualifying.

It will be a similar scene Sunday before the inaugural IndyCar World Championships that will mark her final race as a full-time driver in the series that catapulted her to superstar status. Patrick qualified ninth.

Ray Abbott, a 44-year-old London native who moved to Las Vegas seven years ago, said he followed Formula One while living in England but never considered himself a racing fan -- until he discovered Patrick a couple of years ago.

"I keep an eye on her racing and made an effort to come here to see her," he said. "I came out because it's her last [IndyCar] race.

"I like what she does for sports. It's just good that she's having a go. She's competitive. When she comes out, she gets mobbed. The crowds around her are like the ones around Tiger Woods at a golf tournament."

Some people were there Friday to get autographs for kids or grandkids who couldn't miss school to see their favorite racer.

Josh Maxwell, 33, was there to get souvenirs for his daughter Kaytlin, 9, who became a fan when he took her to the speedway in March 2010 when Patrick competed in her first NASCAR Nationwide race at the track.

"She thought it was really cool that there was a girl racing out there," he said.

They returned for her Nationwide race at Las Vegas this past March, and he said Kaytlin was thrilled when Patrick finished a NASCAR-career-best fourth.

Maxwell was wearing a Tony Stewart hat and is thrilled Patrick will drive in up to 10 Sprint Cup races next year for the Stewart-Haas Racing team.

Jake Pineiros, 11, and sister Lindsay, 8, were at the track with their mother, Stacy. They live in Corona, Calif., and the youngsters were able to get autographs.

"When I watched my first IndyCar race [in 2008], it was the one in Montegi [in Japan] and Danica won," Jake said. "She's really good. And it's kind of cool that I'm almost as tall as her.

"I'll probably start watching NASCAR, but IndyCars are still my favorite."

Patrick enjoys signing autographs and meeting kids.

"They're so cute. I appreciate them more and more all the time," she said. "My favorite thing is when people have kids in line because they're there for the right reason.

"Kids are so pure. They have no ulterior motive."

With adults, however, she is leery.

"I always complain in this day and age with Ebay because I wonder who actually wants my autograph and who wants it so they can sell it," she said, adding that she signs them anyway.

"With the kids, I ask their name and put it on the [item] with mine so they have something to remember me by. I try to break them out of their shell and at least get them to tell me their name."

Getting Jeff Wilkinson out of his shell a couple of years ago wasn't a problem, but the San Diego resident is 60 years old.

He waited for Patrick in the garage area when she raced in NASCAR for the first time at Phoenix International Raceway. He said he'd waited a couple of hours to get an autograph for his grandson when she ignored his polite request and quickly walked past him.

"I was surprised. I was really blown away," he said.

But when she returned to her transporter, her assistant pulled him aside, and he explained it was for his grandson. Patrick apologized and signed.

Patrick said there are times when she can't stop to interact with fans.

"Any time you catch me away from the track or before [race] activities start, you'll see a slightly different me,'' she said. "But once we're starting on the track and I have places to be, then I'm not as relaxed."

Wilkinson said he understands and became a big fan of hers after their meeting.

"I realized after that she is pulled in so many ways and has to focus on racing," he said.

"We like to watch her. We hope she makes it [in NASCAR]. We're pulling for her."

This will be Wilkinson's first IndyCar race in at least five years, and he is attending because it is Patrick's last one.

There will be limited time for autographs Sunday, so Patrick won't have to worry about too many being sold.

But you can bet some will be, and their value will be enhanced because Sunday will be the end to this chapter in her racing career.