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Rahal has put Patrick on fast track

INDIANAPOLIS – The first time Bobby Rahal saw Danica
Patrick
race, he recognized talent, not gender.

"She was in a race car with a helmet on and all I knew was that
she could drive that car real well," said Rahal, a former
Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time series champion who first
spotted Patrick during the Formula Ford Festival in England in
2000.

She was 18 and the only female racing that year at Brands Hatch,
showing plenty of potential by finishing second to current Formula
One test driver Anthony Davidson of England.

Rahal quickly signed Patrick to a contract, bringing her back to
the United States and providing her with first-class equipment and
a stepladder of developmental series to reach the top – the IndyCar Series.

Now, Rahal's vision is paying off, with Patrick, the only woman
in the 33-car field, by far the fastest rookie and – more than a
bit surprising – among the favorites to win Sunday's Indy 500.

But Rahal believes this is only the beginning for his 5-foot-2,
100-pound bundle of promise. And he is quick to react if someone
suggests Patrick is simply a gimmick for finding more team
sponsorship or publicizing Rahal Letterman Racing team, which he
co-owns with television talk show host David Letterman.

"She couldn't have this team behind her if she didn't deserve
it," said Rahal, who won here last year with driver Buddy Rice and
will also have 1999 winner Kenny Brack and Vitor Meira racing
Sunday.

And he takes exception to those who say Patrick is only fast on
Indy's 2½-mile oval because she has far better equipment than was
given to Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James or Sarah Fisher, the three
women who preceded her here.

"I take offense at that," Rahal said. "Not to take anything
away from them but, if those other women had been that good, I
think they would have had opportunities with better teams."

Danica says the negative response of some people is a
motivational tool for her.

"If you don't think I should be fast because maybe I'm driving
for a good team, forget you," she said. "I'm going to go out
there and prove to you time and time again that I belong here, that
I will race up front, and that I'm a great driver, not just driving
for a great team. Everything has to come together."

That feisty attitude is the thing that seems to set the now
23-year-old Patrick apart from the other women who have raced here,
as well as many of Indy's male rookies.

"There is something in her eyes," said three-time Indy winner
Johnny Rutherford, now a driver coach and pace car driver for the
IndyCar Series. "She has a focus that you can't learn. And she has an
intensity when she's in and around the race cars that you usually
only see in the great drivers."

The tiny Patrick has needed every bit of that focus and
intensity this month.

At times, it's been hard to see her for all the media or fans
swirling around her at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

She had a legitimate shot at winning the pole for the world's
most prestigious open-wheel event, winding up fourth – the best for
a woman at Indy – after a scary bobble on the first turn of her
first of four laps of qualifying. It was her only mistake since she
drove onto the Speedway oval for the start of the Rookie
Orientation Program on May 8.

The bitterly disappointed Patrick, who recovered to qualify at
over 227 mph, stood for several minutes slumped over the pit wall,
leaning on her helmet, her long black hair draped over her face,
hiding her anguish.

But Patrick bounced back quickly, reminded by Rahal – who took
the checkered flag himself in 1986 – that it is how a driver fares
in the 500-mile race that really counts.

"I think that what happened in turn one, almost losing it and
hitting the wall, the fact that I caught it might have just done me
some good in earning respect from everybody else," Patrick said.
"I think it might have actually turned into a positive."

Tony Kanaan, who will start from the pole Sunday, agrees.

"That was one heck of a save," the reigning IndyCar Series champion said.
"A lot of drivers would have wound up in the wall on that one. It
was pretty impressive. She's got a lot of talent."

Rahal didn't want to ask too much of his rookie this season. He
told her before the schedule began to simply try to finish races
and get as much seat time as possible.

"I told her, 'I really don't care where you finish. I don't
care if you finish last. Just finish.' She's been better than
anybody could have anticipated up to this point. But I'm only
surprised that it has happened so quickly."

So far in her first full season in the IndyCar Series, Patrick has improved
every race. Before coming to Indy for the first time, she impressed
everyone with a front-row start and a fourth-place finish last
month in Motegi, Japan.

Meira, who will start seventh on Sunday in his third 500,
laughed when he heard Rahal say Patrick is a good student and is
learning something new about driving the race car each day.

"If she is only a student, I can't imagine when she
graduates," he said.