Danica Patrick: Drive to Succeed

From her historic run at Indy to her sudden rush to fame, Patrick’s rookie season was a wild ride. Now there’s pressure from the fans, the media, and the IRL for her to deliver on last year’s promise. But no one wants the win more than she does.

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Editor’s Note, February 19, 2013: This past Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, driver Danica Patrick became the first woman ever to qualify in the top spot for a NASCAR Cup race. She will start in the pole position of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24. The following profile, noted in The Best American Sports Writing series, originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of IM, a year after Patrick’s fourth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500.

 

There’s a problem with the car.

It’s not steering right, just feels loose in the sharper turns of the winding road course here at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And as the driver has watched the lap times drop and stagnate well behind the pace of other cars on the track, the frustration emanating from the cockpit of the No. 16 car has only intensified.

This is just preseason testing for the Indy Racing League, an opportunity for the crew to dial in the machine and for the driver to get in some much-needed laps. It’s not an actual race, but try telling that to a racecar driver who’s steadily losing speed.

“Pit this lap!” the driver barks to the pit crew over a radio that has transmitted more seething than chatter this morning.

“10-4. Coming in.”

A few seconds later, the rumble of Pit Lane pavement and the rising roar of the downshifting engine produce a brightly colored open-wheel Indy-style racecar, which appears to be piloted by a disembodied helmet emblazoned with red, white, and blue. Visor down, the helmet shakes back and forth violently as the members of the pit crew rush to their positions around the now-jacked-up vehicle. The driver doesn’t have to say anything to let engineer Ray Leto know what’s going on.

“Get out,” he says. “We’ll do that change we’ve talked about.”

The driver stands, pulling off the helmet and the tight-fitting balaclava head sock. A pair of silver earrings catches the blazing Florida sun. Driving gloves still on, she yanks a thick ponytail of long black hair out of the back of her fire suit. Once the suit is unzipped and lowered to the waist, revealing a plain cream-colored T-shirt, the driver rips the band from the tail, unfurling her dark, lavish mane. It’s a signal flag to the half-dozen or so lurking photographers and reporters that it’s time to get their shot of Danica Patrick. A storm of cameras, with its lightning flashes and a constant clap of click-clacking shutters, seems to follow the young driver everywhere. But the scrappy 23-year-old is having none of it today. She quickly turns from the cameras, averts her gaze from anyone in her path, and walks briskly from the pit—brow furrowed, fiery dark eyes fixed on the ground. She scurries to the solitude of her trailer. Her mind is squared on the problem car, already on its way to the garage. Today, she refuses to be “Danica” the brand, the charismatic media darling.

In just one year, Danica has brought national recognition to a sport that few outside of Indianapolis seemed to notice much. Beauty, style, and an emerging talent have made this second-year IRL driver a poster celebrity for a league desperate for attention, and she tows the hopes and fortunes of that league on every lap she runs. But right now, she is driver No. 16, whose best time in this trial is still clocked 14th in a field of 18. A driver who, with the season only three weeks away, needs to find speed—a way to stay up front, to finally win some races, to live up to the lofty expectations that she, the league, the world have put upon her, or else …

While the cameras can be a nuisance on days like today, when she just wants to be “pissed-off alone,” she knows that all the attention is symbolic of success. She quietly yearns for those camera lenses, not as windows to fame, but as simple affirmations of her performance on the track. And in the back of her mind, Danica’s concerned, maybe even a little scared, that if she isn’t a success on the track, if she’s not more than just a so-so driver with a pretty face, all these reporters and photographers will start to ignore her. That she will be nothing more than a lapped car, a DNF. A flameout followed only by an eerie silence.

“I don’t know what else to do,” she says. ”If I knew, I’d fix it. I’m trying as hard as I can out there.”

She’s late.

Five reporters gather in front of Danica’s trailer, getting recorders and notebooks ready while they wait for their subject to emerge. Due to a Preseason Media Day schedule booked full with interviews, press conferences, and photo shoots, there was no window to grant these writers the one-on-one sessions they had requested. Instead, Danica’s PR man, Brent Maurer, scheduled the five together at 9:15 a.m. for a 30-minute conference where they could take turns posing their questions. It’s 9:20 a.m., and the reporters know that the hard-to-reach Patrick probably won’t be able to make up the minutes already lost.

“This is crazy,” says a reporter. “Last year at this time, they were pitching us. Now, she’s harder to get than the president.”

Before making her IRL debut last year in the season-opening race here at Homestead, Danica was known more for her feminine sexuality than for any racing prowess. In 2003, while driving in the Toyota Atlantic series—a feeder series for Champ Car and the IRL—she had posed for a series of photos for the FHM lad mag, shots that had her draped on the hood of a hot rod, clad in little more than a bathing suit. In the winter leading up to the 2005 season, she appeared in a league advertisement dressed in tight leather pants and a midriff shirt, staring seductively into the camera beneath the line “We heard you like to watch.” The talk among the male race reporters in the Homestead press box in the minutes leading up to her first race last March was limited mostly to lewd banter, elbow-nudging and discussions among older men about how much they liked her glamour shots in the IRL Media Guide.

At first, Danica’s racing did little to steer the boys away from their chauvinistic notions. She raced strong at Homestead, only to place 15th after getting taken out by a late-race, eight-car wreck. That was followed by a 15th-place finish in Phoenix last March and a 12th-place showing in St. Petersburg last April. But later that month, in Motegi, Japan, she finally broke through, qualifying second and finishing fourth.

And then came the month of May. Then came Indy.

“Danica,” as we now know her, could be said to have been born on May 15,2005, when she completed the fastest qualifying lap of the month at the Brickyard, clocking in at 229.880 mph. That feat planted the idea that yes, this woman could be competitive in the sport’s greatest race; media pandemonium ensued, and the IRL suddenly had its star. Maurer estimates that last May, Danica did more than 700 interviews. In just 21 hours at the Indy 500 media day in New York, she took part in 27 TV interviews, five radio shows, and more than 12 Q-and-A sessions with print media. She then earned that attention on race day by leading 19 laps, becoming the first woman ever to lead a lap at Indy. She finished fourth and was named Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. As a result, she—not race winner Dan Wheldon—became the first IndyCar driver to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in 20 years. It was the genesis of what the press termed “Danicamania.”

So that’s why, when Danica finally arrives seven minutes late to the waiting reporters at the little morning press conference, she’s ready to go into “Danica” mode, to draw upon the media savvy she’s accrued since her Indy run. Today, it’s as if she can merely flip an internal switch to cue the charm, the ready-made sound bites and the sharp, bright smile. She greets each reporter with a grin, a nod, and a handshake, a firm clasp cultivated through years of being a woman trying to hold her own in a man’s sport. “All right,” she says, “I’m all yours.”

On days like today, when the car is cooling in the shade of the garage, Danica embraces the role she has created, applying the same focus as she does to her performance on race day. Seated at a long folding table, fielding rapid-fire questions from the quintet of reporters sitting around her, she is careful to engage each person and looks each one in the eyes as she speaks. She’s amiable, pleasant, and very quick to respond, though not necessarily straightforward in her answers. After all, at this point she rarely hears a question that she hasn’t answered before.

“Danica, some people have said that you’re going to have to step up your performance, or it just becomes a novelty act,” says one of the reporters. “I guess my question is, at what point do we start losing interest?”

Danica doesn’t hesitate. But she sidesteps the question. “I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve won poles, led laps, run up front. I’ve run in back, too. And if I run in back for two years or so … I don’t fault anyone for asking that. I guess I’m asking it, too.”

The car is waiting.

The changes have been made, and the crew, clad in matching navy-blue Rahal polo shirts, is pacing about the pit area, waiting for Danica to arrive and get a few laps in before lunch.

Trying to avoid the handful of photographers and reporters who were camped in front of her trailer, Danica had slipped out the back door and taken a circuitous route behind the garages to finally arrive at pit lane. Her hair is down, as is her fire suit, a hair band around her right wrist. A determined crease runs north-south down the middle of her forehead. She gives a quiet nod to her engineer as she puts the hair up, pulls on the suit, zips, slips on the balaclava, tucks the ponytail, and dons the gleaming helmet. She slides into the cockpit, grips the wheel.

“Radio check,” breaks through the transmitter static into her headgear.

“Radio,” she says.

“Spotter check, 1-2, 1-2.”

“Spotter.”

Then, after a subtle beckon by her crew chief, she punches the gas, tires screeching, peeling rubber on the pavement as the car roars out of the pit into Turn 1 and out of sight.

As the crew members climb back into the pit area, they notice a stout tanned man wearing shorts and a faded gray T-shirt, looking on with deep interest. His shirt reads “Blah, blah, blah, accelerate.” The guys silently nod their greetings to the salt-and- pepper-haired man whom they’ve come to know quite well. He is Danica’s father.

Standing confident, arms crossed, eyes fixed behind black sunglasses on what he can read about his daughter’s performance through the body language of her crew, T.J. Patrick seems comfortable around the pit and around a race track. He and Danica’s mother, Bev, tour with Danica throughout the season and help manage her business affairs. They drive to and from each event in their new brown Prebost Marathon motorcoach.

A former motocross and snowmobile driver who even raced midget cars for a time, T.J. met Bev at a skimobile event in 1978. On March 25,1982, Danica Sue Patrick was born to the couple in Roscoe, Illinois, a town about 100 miles northwest of Chicago. There, at age 10, mainly because of her little sister Brooke’s interest in trying go-karts, Danica got behind the wheel of her first machine. She’s been there ever since.

“I’m a girl,” Danica says. “I like to look pretty. I like to look sexy. Everything you see, whether it’s rough-and-tough or half-clothed, it’s me.”

T.J. was her coach, and he saw in his elder daughter an immediate, almost preternatural ability in racing. He tried to impart to her the rest, the technical knowledge and the work ethic. The sport appealed to the perfectionist in her—she could see herself improve with each race, and there was always room to get better. Three months after her first lap, Danica owned the track record at Sugar River Raceway in Wisconsin. Within three years, she was racing on a national stage, winning 39 out of 49 feature karting events, including the World Karting Association Grand National Championship in the Yamaha Lite class.

By the time she was 16, having won two more WKA national championships, Danica was ready to move on, this time without her father/coach/mentor. In 1998, with her parents’ blessing, she dropped out of her junior year of high school, said goodbye to her family, and moved to England. There she would race alone against the world’s best in the European schooling formulas, the prep leagues for drivers who aspire to someday compete in the elite ranks of Formula 1, the world’s premier open-wheel racing series.

It was a lonely but fruitful period in Danica’s career, for while she was thousands of miles from home and family, her performance on the track was getting second looks. In 2000, when she finished second at the Formula Ford Festival in Brands Hatch, England—the highest finish ever by an American in the history of the event—she captured the attention of IndyCar legend Bobby Rahal. The three-time CART champion signed Danica to a multi-year contract to race for Team Rahal in the 2003 Toyota Atlantic series, a top open-wheel feeder series, back in the States. Although she didn’t win a race in her two years in Toyota Atlantic, she recorded 10 top-five finishes in 12 races and came in third in the 2004 series point standings. Rahal then brought her to the IRL, to Indy, telling the newspapers that he planned to enter her in the 500 in 2005 and that he “fully expects her to win it someday.”

It’s a goal that’s still at the top of her list. But first, she’s got to rediscover the speed that launched her into the limelight at the Brickyard nine months ago. And today, the No. 16 is just not giving it to Danica.

“Pit!” she growls.

“10-4. Coming in.”

The car screeches to a halt in the pit stall. The voice coming from the disembodied helmet seems exasperated.

“I can’t get rid of this understeer,” she says. “I can’t get any faster. It’s been like that all day, and it’s just not getting any better. I can’t get on the freaking throttle!”

It’s almost time for the noon lunch break. Leto tries to calm his driver. “Maybe we should just go back and get a head start on it,” he says.

Danica gets out of the car. Helmet, head sock, ponytail, fire suit, hair down. As she talks with the engineers, a group of middle-aged men, looking like corporate guests in their polo shirts, khaki shorts and sunglasses, catch a glimpse of the female driver. They chuckle, elbow-nudge, and gawk as if they were at a zoo. But as Danica heads back to the trailer, the group makes its way over to the timekeeper’s table. They find Danica’s name on the screen display and follow it to her 14th-place ranking. “Man,” one of them says, disappointed, “you know she’s better than that.”

Danica is rushing down Homestead’s Gasoline Alley, zipping up her fire suit as she heads toward the front straightaway. There, she and 17 other drivers are scheduled for a yearbook-style photo shoot for Honda, manufacturer of all the IRL’s engines for the upcoming season. For all of these drivers, this is just one more in a long list of media events scheduled for this morning. But as usual, Danica’s list is a bit longer than most. She’s already been through two half-hour press conferences and a 20-minute shoot for ABC Sports. But she’s here, ready and on time, which is more than can be said of a few straggling bodies. “These things are always interesting,” says one team’s PR rep, looking at his watch. “You’ve basically got to get 18 egos to coordinate and bend their schedules and be in one place at the same time.”

Last season, many of those egos were bruised by Danicamania. In the months following the May media explosion at Indianapolis, “Danica” the single-named celebrity was one of the hottest sports commodities anywhere, her face plastered all over the TV, newspapers, and magazines. She had her own ESPN commercial with famed host Dan Patrick. IRL venues began using her to promote their races. Virginia’s Richmond International Raceway adopted the slogans “Get Ready D.C., Danica is coming to Richmond,” and “You saw her lead the Indy 500, now see her race in Richmond.”

The fans wanted more of “Danica,” too. In May, she was in the top five keywords searched on Internet search engines Yahoo and Google. Sales of Danica Patrick T-shirts, hats, and other paraphernalia skyrocketed, constituting 54 percent of all IRL driver sales that month. At the league’s regular driver-autograph sessions held the Saturdays before races, upwards of 400 people would flood the infield trying to get to Danica’s table. It was at one of these sessions, before the Milwaukee race last July, that Danicamania sustained its first public blow. Demand for her signature became so overwhelming that track officials were forced to create a separate line for Danica fans, a snaking queue that nearly wound around the entire building.

Four drivers from a competing team boycotted the session, crying foul over the “special treatment.”

Obviously there was a healthy dose of pure driver-envy at work. But the drivers might well have also been chafing at the fact that, despite ending up as the IRL’s 2005 Rookie of the Year, Danica’s post-500 performance wasn’t really warranting all the buzz. Almost every week they’d pick up a newspaper with a headline like: “[Tomas] Scheckter savors Texas triumph; Patrick 13th,” or “Patrick’s move earns penalty” atop the recap of a Michigan race she didn’t even finish due to mechanical failure. In the 12 races that followed Indy, Danica never finished higher than sixth, only cracking the top 10 four times. She managed to win three poles, tying the record for an IRL rookie, but in those three races combined, she only managed to lead one lap. Though she led 19 laps at Indy, Danica would only lead a total of 12 laps for the rest of the year. And while the IRL and everyone else was on Danica-watch, other drivers were standing champagne-drenched in Victory Lane fielding questions about what they thought of the rookie star’s performance.

“There were a lot of guys out there who did a better job,” Dario Franchitti snapped when asked his opinion of Danica’s seventh-place finish at Nashville after he handily won the race. In the minutes after the Indy 500, Dan Wheldon was asked about winning and “spoiling Danica’s party.” “I don’t care,” he told reporters. Then, two weeks later in Texas, the Brit had a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun with it, donning a T-shirt that read, “Really, I won the Indianapolis 500.”

The sometimes misplaced attention requires a delicate balance. Today, as she shakes hands through the gathering group of drivers at the Honda photo shoot, she extends her firm grip to Wheldon, exchanges laughs with Franchitti and the others. Suddenly, out of the crowd Danica spots her former teammate Vitor Meira, now a driver for Panther Racing, and reaches up to give him a hug. Meira is one of Danica’s closest friends in this business, but last year at Texas, he and teammate Buddy Rice wore their own T-shirts poking fun at Danicamania. Rice’s read “Danica’s teammate;” Meira’s said “Danica’s other teammate.”

“It doesn’t matter if I’m sick of all the Danica questions,” Meira says later. “They’re going to keep coming, anyway.” Meira admits that at certain points last year, he was disappointed that he and other drivers weren’t getting the attention they felt they deserved. After all, the fact that he finished second behind Wheldon at the 500 has already faded into trivia. But he also says that he can’t blame her or the IRL for taking advantage of the public’s interest. “She deserves it,” he says. “She’s every bit as good as the top drivers in this league.”

So does Danica need to actually win a race to legitimize the hype that has sprung up around her? “I don’t think so.” Meira says. “I think in people’s minds, she’s already won.”

That’s precisely what Danica says when asked the same question. “I don’t feel like I have to do anything. I’m happy with what I’ve done.”

However, as she kneels in the front row of the Honda photo with past winners Tony Kanaan to her right, Scott Sharp to her left, and Bryan Herta standing behind her, she knows that the main thing that separates her from almost every other driver there—aside from the fact that she gets more media coverage than all of them combined—are those checkered flags.

“PIT!”

“10-4. Coming in.”

The car screeches to a halt; the pit crew pounces. This time, Danica is livid, all over the radio.

“What the heck’s going on? I mean, am I driving like an idiot or what? It seems we’re doing the same stuff over and over, and it’s just not fixing it.”

Standing in front of the car, Leto holds up his hands and tries to calm his driver.

“We’re just trying stuff,” he says. “I can see you’re frustrated …”

She cuts him off. “I can’t go through this punishment …”

After a few adjustments and a handful of long conversations out of the car with Leto and crew, Danica peels out for what will be her last laps of this test. It’s 3:30 p.m., and the Florida sun is beginning to make its descent, relieving a bit of the heat on the crew that’s been out here for almost seven hours of testing. Judging by her exhausted tone on the radio, Danica’s fever has broken, but as she pulls back into the pits, she is far from well. “Sorry guys,” she says on the radio, sounding deflated amid the echoing clamor of the team closing up shop. “I just couldn’t get it to go any faster.”

She’s fallen to 15th overall. She stands. Helmet, head sock, ponytail, fire suit, hair down. Again the photographers gather, following her as she dejectedly enters the pit and reaches for a quick hug from her father. As a group of cameramen lean over the rope barricade to get a few snapshots of the moment, Danica unloads in a stern tone, just short of yelling, her inflection falling somewhere between utter sarcasm and dead seriousness. “Are you guys done with photos? How many do you need?”

More than 500. That’s roughly the number of images captured on film, of flashbulbs popping to sparkle and fade in Danica’s eyes during the gantlet photo session for media and corporate sponsors that follows the group photo for Honda.

By 4:30 p.m., Danica has endured four straight hours of taking direction—”Chin up” or “Turn to the right”— four hours of the stuffy, still-air confines of a large garage that has been partitioned with metal poles and black curtains into about two dozen makeshift studios. Four hours in the sticky itch of a sweat-lined fire suit. But Danica has persevered, again applying her race-day focus. Working the camera, she instantly sheds her between-shot grimaces of fatigue and slips into the luminous gaze that every photographer raves about as being that of a “natural model.” Again, she’s all business. So much so that, once, halfway through a session, when a photographer realizes a light hasn’t been working and dares to suggest that he might have to re-shoot, Patrick actually shows a flicker of anger. “Hey!” she says, rolling her eyes. “I hit my poses!”

Now, after having been posed a thousand different ways—standing, seated on chairs and tires or on her car, and even lying on a table—she gets a break from the stifling race gear as she rounds out the marathon photo session with a 4:30 glamour shoot for the cover of this magazine.

She can be the All-American girl, the athlete, the sincere sweetheart posing for a reading poster for the American Library Association. But sultry comes easy, too. “I’m a girl,” she says. “I like to look pretty. I like to look sexy. I see so much of me in a race suit and helmet—everything else is a contrast to that. Everything you see, whether it’s rough-and-tough or half-clothed—it’s all me.”

But that doesn’t mean her mother always approves. Waiting on the periphery with the fire suit draped over her folded arms—looking as if she were waiting for her daughter to get out of a grade-school play rehearsal—Bev looks on silently. When the shoot’s over, Bev’s face bears a bit of a scowl, though she says nothing. She just hands Danica the suit and then lovingly sends her off with Maurer in his car.

“I don’t think Mom liked that gown,” Danica reveals from the passenger seat, as she and Maurer speed across the complex for another PR duty. “She thought it was too low in the front. It was no worse than other things I’ve worn.” She yawns. It’s already been a long day. “Now how long is this going to take?”

“Not long,” Maurer says. Over the past year, he’s seen Danica through a lot of these long days. He does his best to support her, to try to let her have fun with it. Last May, when she was doing 20 interviews a day, the two came up with the “Secret Word of the Day” game. At the start of the day, they would choose an obscure word, like “ginormous,” and Danica would have to find a way to slip it into a response to a reporter, like “I raced well today. I mean, it’s not like I got a ginormous tow out there.”

Her mind is never far from the track. She’s a racecar driver. This is her last chance to practice before the season starts. Her last chance to find some speed.

“We’ll be in and out of here in just a few minutes,” Maurer says, even though he can’t promise that. While the media portion of the day is finished, along with ad spots for Japanese radio (“Okee-okee Danica-son”) and Brazilian TV (“il sol Danica Patrick”), she still has to do a few promotional things for the IRL. Although it’s a duty that falls on all drivers, it seems to have fallen harder on the 23-year-old. After all, it’s easy to see that the IRL has as much riding on her success as anyone.

In the 10 years since it split off from CART and formed its own league, the IRL has been the lowly cousin of NASCAR, both in popularity and revenue. In 2004, IRL IndyCar races averaged a dismal 0.8 TV rating, compared to the 4.9 of the stock cars. In 2005, Danica’s first year in the series, the IRL’s ratings jumped 38 percent for the league’s seven races on ABC, 42 percent for the other 10 televised on ESPN and ESPN2. That’s still well below NASCAR, but last year’s Indy 500 was the highest-rated TV broadcast of the race since 1996, 76 percent above the 2004 race. Dawn Stout, research coordinator for the local ABC affiliate, told The Indianapolis Star that the IRL should “start paying Danica for every rating point.”

After Danica’s Indy performance, says John Griffin, vice president of public relations for the IRL, the phones rang ceaselessly with media requests from TV Guide, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, CNN NewsNight, and other media outlets that had never before covered the league or even racing. Even regular sports entities like Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, and Fox Sports, which covered the league in only the loosest of senses, were now responding to the public’s heightened post-500 interest. “People were on See-if-Danica-Wins watch,” Griffin says. “And it allowed us to reach new audiences.”

Even when Danica ran in the back, her mere presence was important to the league, Griffin says, because the reporters and cameramen who came for her were now incidentally being introduced to Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan. “It was our chance to showcase the league and our other drivers,” Griffin says. “Now people are keeping an eye on the IRL.”

Despite their personal qualms, Danica’s fellow drivers have had no choice but to acknowledge the overwhelmingly positive effect her presence has had on them. “Everything she’s done has been a positive,” admits Wheldon. “She’s really driving the series forward.”

But what if the public loses interest? What if Danica doesn’t deliver?

“I think the public will be patient,” Griffin says. “A lot of people are rooting for her. And besides, we’ve figured that it takes an average of 34 races for a rookie to win their first race.” The IRL came up with that statistic, he admits, just this past summer, conveniently in time to defend a certain 2005 rookie.

Regardless, watching Danica’s intensity during her 17 races makes it difficult to believe that any excuse is good enough for her—and it’s clear from her manner that much of the pressure is self-induced.

Right now, however, her off-track duties have her full attention. The short ride to the track’s media center now over, Maurer leads Danica to a small room with concrete floors and ceiling and cinder-block walls. There are two chairs. In one sits a clip-on microphone; in the other, an IRL official.

“These are radio spots,” he tells Danica, handing her three pages of lines. He notices her counting them silently with her eyes. “There are 17.”

“Seventeen?!” she says, rolling her eyes. “Fine. Roll tape.”

“Rolling.”

She flips the switch inside of her just as she did between flashes at the photo shoot, draining any sarcasm or frustration from her voice. All business

“This is Danica Patrick, and I’ll see you at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“Do each one a couple times.” Switch off. “I’m doing each one twice!” Switch on. “This is Danica Patrick … and I’ll see you at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The fading sun of Media Day casts an orange glow on Turn 4 in the northeast corner of the Homestead-Miami Speed- way. The No. 16 car is back on the track, running three-wide with the cars of Wheldon and rookie Marco Andretti.

But there is no roar of engine, nor rumble of pavement. The cars are virtually still, save for the near-futile efforts of a half-dozen photographers’ assistants bent behind them, pushing them forward at a slug’s pace while trying to stay tucked out of the shot. This is a simulated race photo for the cover of IndyCar Series magazine, the IRL’s own publication.

Maurer is late in getting here, and he walks briskly up the bank of the turn, calling out to the helmet in the 16 car, “How’s everything going?”

The helmet turns to him, shakes back and forth as a gloved hand rises from the cockpit, middle finger extended in Maurer’s direction. He laughs, throws his arms open, and shakes his head in incredulity.

Just then, the photographer tells Maurer the shot’s over and he’s done with the car and its pilot. Maurer runs to the car just in time to see helmet, ponytail … But the hair is brown, and the face a bit rounder. And when she tries to get out of the car, she wriggles and finds that she can’t. “I’m stuck,” says the Danica double, one of Maurer’s counterparts from another team. “How the hell does she get into this thing?”

Meanwhile, the real Danica is back at the family bus parked at the southern end of the infield. As her father cooks his family dinner outside the brown motorcoach on the old propane grill, painted blue, red, and white with the No. 16 IndyCar on the lid, Danica takes a breather, relaxes in the cool air-conditioned bus. In these confines, surrounded by her family, she is no longer the model, the personality, the celebrity, or even the famous athlete. She is the 23-year-old woman who’s had a hard day at the office, whose feet ache, whose thoughts drift to her new husband, Paul, back home in Phoenix, doing his job as a physical therapist and trainer and probably thinking of her. Here, she is the private Danica that she guards so ferociously from the prying media.

But her mind is never far from the track. She’s a racecar driver. Tomorrow is the final day of oval testing, and it’ll be her last chance to practice before her crucial season kicks off here in three weeks. Her last chance to find some speed. Tired, she feels a cold coming on, and after dinner, Danica’s early to bed. She’s got a big day tomorrow.

Photos by John Bragg. On the cover: Styling—Stephen Rieder/Ford Miami, Hair/makeup—Harper/Ford Miami; wardrobe—vintage gown courtesy C. Madeline’s, Miami.

This article appeared in the May 2006 issue.

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