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MAY 31, 2005

Take a step back

Global motor racing should be rejoicing this week because the sport, a bastion of the white male since the very start, has finally found a female star worthy of the term. Dan Wheldon won the Indianapolis 500 and good luck to him, but if his success has been slightly overshadowed by the performance of Danica Patrick, it is perhaps not such a bad thing. The sport will gain massively more from Danica's efforts than the fact, impressive though it may be, that Wheldon is the first Englishman to win the race since the 1960s.

The only time we have seen a comparable achievement to Patrick's performance was back in 1926 when Elizabeth Junek, a 26-year-old from Czechoslovakia took part in the Targa Florio, the toughest motor race of them all at the time. She spent nearly a month in Sicily before the event, carefully noting the 1500 corners of the 67-mile Madonie circuit. The men mocked her because the Targa was an event which required great physical strength but in the race she was able to use that knowledge of the road to run in fourth place until her steering failed and she crashed into a ditch. Soon afterwards she won the two-litre class of the sports car German GP at the Nurburgring and broke several ribs when embraced heartily by the burly German Otto Merz, the overall winner. In 1928 she returned to the Targa Florio and led against all the top names of the era. She ended the race in fifth place. Later that year Junek's husband was killed racing at the Nurburgring and she quit the sport, living quietly in Czechoslovakia until her death in the early 1990s.

Junek might have achieved much more and the glory of Danica Patrick is that she is just beginning her international career. But for a couple of rookie mistakes in the race she might have won Indianapolis. She led several times and fought back to come within a few laps of what would have been the biggest upset in the history of the sport. Danica's gamble on fuel at the end of the race almost worked. Victory was within her grasp. In a flash Patrick has swept away all the arguments that women do not have the strength nor fitness to compete with men. The fact that some tubby older racer has suggested that she has a weight advantage is a total irrelevance. Small racing drivers always have an advantage unless weight is factored into the regulations. Karting champions are generally small people.

Patrick's achievement will do great things for motor racing. Female interest in the sport will undoubtedly grow and she will inspire a new generation of girl racers to give it a try. In five or 10 years from now there will be a lot more Danica Patricks. Some may even be faster. There will also be more fans - male and female - because there is a wonderful story in the pretty girl taking on the big bad men. There will be new sponsors. There will be a new awareness of the sport. Patrick has grabbed the spotlight for motor racing at a time when open-wheeler racing in the United States was in the doldrums. Champ Car and the Indy Racing League are both struggling along and the Indianapolis 500 was not the event that once it was. The mainstream of America's population cared nothing for the sport. There were the usual hard-core group of fans but beyond that few could name an open-wheeler racing driver. NASCAR was king.

That may be about to change. TV ratings will go up as the media follows Patrick's progress.

The big challenge now is for IRL to hold on to its new-found star. NASCAR will want her. Formula 1 will want her. She can write her own ticket if she continues to perform as she did at the Speedway. The big question is what her ambitions are and for Formula 1 fans the news is good. Patrick went to Europe in her teens to try to climb the racing ladder there. She wanted to be the best of the best and she raced against the likes of Jenson Button and Anthony Davidson in Formula Ford. She is respected by them. Now they are in F1 and there is no reason why she should not eventually go back to her original career path and take up the fight again with the men she raced in Formula Ford.

And for F1 marketing men, that would be manna from heaven.