(AFP) – Apr 22, 2008
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana (AFP) — Danica Patrick endured sexist remarks and disappointment through 49 starts without a victory over more than three years in the male-dominated world of Indy-car racing.
But the 26-year-old American kept her poise and that's why the lady is now a champion, becoming the first woman in a century of open-wheel racing to win an event after taking the checkered flag in Sunday's Indy Japan 300.
"Dreams really do come true. You just have to be persistent enough," Patrick said. "This was a long time coming. I can only say I'm just glad it's over.
"I'm not going to lie. I was getting frustrated. I believed in myself. It was just a matter of when it was going to happen. I've been asked so many times when I'm going to win my first race -- finally no more of those questions."
Patrick jumped to third in the Indy-car points list after three events, 14 behind Brazilian leader Helio Castroneves, and will be the talk of next month's Indianapolis 500, where her fourth-place effort in 2005 is the best by a woman.
Few sports even offer women a chance to beat men.
Dutch star Anky van Grunsven took Olympic dressage gold in 2000 and 2004 but only sailing and equestrian disciplines have women competing against men.
Drag racing's Shirley Muldowney and Ashley Force have became stars against men but Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie never managed to make a cut against a top-flight men's golf field.
Patrick proved she was more than an Anna Kournikova on wheels, a sporting beauty who never won. While not the first woman behind the wheel of an Indy-car, she was the first to stay competitive race after race.
"The disadvantage to overcome was just that I hadn't won," Patrick said. "A lot of women hadn't really proved on a consistent basis that they could be a good driver and always run up front.
"I grew up with never really using guys as a reference. If I wasn't fast enough, I wasn't fast enough. That was the most important thing. I didn't think about it like, 'I'm the best girl out here.'
"I grew up with the right attitude to translate into a more competitive world. I thank my family for that."
Castroneves was low on fuel when Patrick passed him for the lead two laps from the finish.
"In recognition of Danica's talents, she did a good job. She passed me fair and square," Castroneves said. "I didn't have enough fuel to fight with her and I guess it's part of history. She was very competitive."
Patrick, whose best prior Indy-car finish was second last year at Detroit, first encountered sexism as a lonely 16-year-old in England trying to start her career.
"I wanted to be a race car driver so badly that everything I had to go through was just part of the process," she told the Chicago Tribune.
She still fights sexist remarks from rival drivers.
"Danica is pretty aggressive in our cars, especially if you catch her at the right time of the month," winless Indy-car rival Ed Carpenter said in 2006.
When Patrick angrily confronted England's Dan Wheldon last year at Milwaukee after a racing incident, he said: "She's messing with the wrong person if she wants to get feisty. I'm a lot tougher than she is on the track."
Patrick's triumph sent a wake-up call to once-disbelieving men.
"I can't tell you that I blame them for not believing that we could do it," Patrick said. "But when you have 100 guys come through, finding one good one, the odds are a lot better than 100 girls since it takes a lot longer. The odds are against us."
Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race in the Indy 500 and Lyn St. James followed with seven Indy 500 starts. Now Patrick, compatriot Sarah Fisher and Venezuela's Milka Duno often make three women starters in Indy-car races.
"It's going to be one of those things that's remembered. It's a first and firsts are always in history books. I've definitely thought about that before, and I've always hoped and wanted to be that person," she said.
Patrick's race team is co-owned by Michael Andretti, who knows about frustration after having never managed to follow his father Mario into Victory Lane at Indianapolis.
"Danica is such a fantastic person and I'm thrilled for her that the monkey is finally off of her back," Andretti said. "We have all believed in her and she proved that she is a winner. Frankly, I think this is the first of many."
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