Danica took training to another continent

In the bags of mail that crisscross their way every day around the country, here's a bet that this kind of letter doesn't roll into the trackside administration office at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway very often.

"Danica Patrick," read the address on the delivery. "Race Car Driver. Indianapolis, IN."

How do you know you've arrived? When your fans don't even mess with details like home addresses or zip codes ... and the letter still gets to you.

The postman knows who she is, but if you don't really know about Danica Patrick, buckle up.

Patrick is the energetic star of the Indycar series and a fan favorite for her feisty nature and her ability to mix it up in what is still a largely male-dominated sport.

When she first joined the series for the 2005 season, some longtime racing critics began calling her the greatest woman to ever drive an open-wheel car. And since she became the first woman to win an Indycar race (Japan, 2008) they might be right.

With dark, flowing hair and a slender 5-foot, 2-inch frame, she's a hot commodity at Indy. And she's barely into her career.

"There's definitely been a lot of fan response and media response," Patrick said early in her career. "I think it's just really flattering. And I think it's what the sport needs."

In no time flat, she created her own media frenzy. She has been on the front page of every major metropolitan newspaper, been interviewed by every influential talk show and -- oh, by the way -- posted the fastest qualifying speed of any woman who has driven at Indianapolis ... in her first year. Only one split-second wiggle on the steering wheel kept her from taking the pole.

"An itty-bitty gust of wind," she called it after her qualifying run placed her fourth, which just happened to be how she finished the race.

Given her family, Patrick seemed destined to take this kind of ride. Her father was a motorcross and snowmobile racer who met Danica's mother at a snowmobile race on a blind date.

"Very much a racing family," Patrick said.

She was raised in Roscoe, Ill., a suburb of Rockford that sits near the Wisconsin state line, and began bumping go-karts with Indy Racing League driver Sam Hornish Jr. when Patrick was 12 and he was 15.

Hornish tells the story of trying to pass her once in a race, only to have Patrick block him and cause a collision. Her kart went off the track. His stayed on. When Patrick returned to the race, "she went into the last corner and drove right over the top of me," Hornish told the Chicago Tribune. "She went upside down. It took us both out."

Clearly, the spirit was there.

By 15, Danica was a go-kart champion and was already drawing the interest of racing executives at Ford Motor Co. and racing legend Jackie Stewart. They all had a suggestion: Try the European racing leagues.

So in 1998, at 16, and just a junior in high school, Danica left Illinois and went to Europe ... alone.

It was an experience she describes as "tough on the soul."

"I remember my mom and dad when I was leaving at the airport and they were starting to get choked up.

"My dad said, 'I couldn't imagine you not having this opportunity.'"

T.J. Patrick had another message for his daughter: "Go get 'em."

She did, but it wasn't easy.

Patrick tells the story of trying to make it in a tough environment where she was rarely respected and rarely had the best equipment. Without a lot of financial backing, the job got even tougher. But she eventually caught the eye of longtime racer and car owner Bobby Rahal, who quickly saw the potential.

"It was a very hostile environment," Rahal said in 2005. "But what was most impressive was the fact that she did it alone and she did very well."

After two years in England, Patrick finally had a decent car and things began to turn around. Rahal was convinced. He brought her back to the United States and signed her to a contract.

After a few impressive years in the then Toyota Atlantic series, the minor leagues of open-wheel racing, Patrick moved up to the Indy Racing League for 2005.

"She has proved everywhere else that she's the first woman who can mix it up," Rahal said.

After her fourth-place qualifying run, she attracted loads of attention from every angle. In this wild, male-dominated sport, gender is always a hot topic. It's one of the reasons the media is so interested.

Patrick just takes all the gender questions in stride.

"People are excited for it and they like to see something new and something fresh and something they've never seen before," she said. But, "as I've heard (race driver) Lyn St. James say before, 'The car does not know the difference.'"

Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.