Posted: May 12, 2005 10:51 am EST

Column: Patrick could be a spark at Indy (~11 col. in.)
by Ken de la Bastide, The Herald Bulletin, Anderson, Ind.
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    Additional Information: Drivers are out practicing and tuning up their cars this week in anticipation of the Indianapolis 500. One driver who has those at the track talking is Danica Patrick, the only female competing with a major auto racing group. She has been iumpressive in early testing.

    CNHI News Service photo by Cynthia Fugate/The Hendricks Co. Flyer, Avon, Ind.

    By Ken de la Bastide
    CNHI News Service

    Tony George and the rest of the officials with the Indy Racing League should be on bended knee every night over the performance to date of Danica Patrick.

    Patrick, the only female driver competing with a major auto racing group, has been impressive through the first two days of testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    Driving for Rahal-Letterman Racing, Patrick has made steady improvement through the first three IRL events. She started on the outside pole at the last race in Japan and actually led laps.

    She practiced on Sunday during rookie orientation at over 221 miles per hour.

    Patrick becomes the fourth woman to attempt to make a starting field for the Indianapolis 500. Janet Guthrie, Lynn St. James and Sarah Fisher all made starts at Indy, but none of them were ever considered serious challengers.

    Patrick, an Illinois native, is a totally different story. Team owner Bobby Rahal doesn’t expect her to compete for the victory, but he does expect the team to be competitive all month.

    Patrick is going to be the center of media attention throughout May, which could drive renewed interest in the race and ticket sales.

    George has needed a driver who would attract the focus of the media and fans since the IRL was formed. Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. have both sparked some excitement for the IRL, but it was only a passing fancy.

    Patrick could be the spark the series needs to put it over the hump and on to future success. If she fares well during the month of May, media attention will continue to build.

    Pole speeds are expected to top 226 miles per hour, so she will have to find lots more speed. That will be a difficult task.

    I do expect Patrick to easily make the starting field and she has to be considered the leading contender for rookie of the year honors. With teammate Buddy Rice, the 2004 winner of the Indy 500, in her corner, Patrick will get lots of sound advice.

    Pole day for the 500 is scheduled for Saturday and there will be no shortage of drivers contending for the honor. Tomas Scheckter, Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr., Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti will all be in the hunt.

    My pick for the pole position is Dan Wheldon, the driver for Andretti-Team Green, the current points leader. He turned laps just under 225 mph on Tuesday.

    Ken de la Bastide writes for The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Ind.

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