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Celebrities Live in the Fast Lane

Auto racing: Patrick steals the thunder from luminaries in qualifying for pro-celebrity race.

April 13, 2002|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She is a scant 102 pounds, with long brown hair and Hollywood good looks that make her fit right in with the celebrities in the paddock, but Danica Patrick isn't part of that crowd.

Patrick is a racer and, though few know her in America, she is a good one.

The 20-year-old was the fastest qualifier Friday for today's Toyota pro-celebrity race at the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Patrick didn't just out-qualify the celebrities in identically prepared Toyota Celicas, but also two-time Indy 500 starter Sarah Fisher and Tommy Kendall, the only man to win four Trans-Am sedan championships.

"She's obviously the real deal," said Kendall, who qualified second at 66.358 mph. "Finishing second in the [European] Formula Ford Festival shows that. Only one American ever finished as high as second, and that was Danny Sullivan in 1974. That is one of the most prestigious races for a young driver in Europe."

Patrick led the field at 66.458 mph and a time of 1 minute 46.606 seconds on the 1.97-mile layout. Fisher, with her Indy Racing League reputation, is much better known in the United States than Patrick and qualified third in her first road course event.

The top qualifier among the celebrities was swimmer Dara Torres, an Olympic gold medalist who was less than two seconds behind Patrick. Torres will be starting on the pole, alongside former pro wrestler Bill Goldberg, and will lead a field of 12 celebrities, who get a 30-second head start over the pro drivers in the 10-lap race.

Patrick, from Roscoe, Ill., spent the last four seasons racing Formula Ford and Formula Vauxhall in Europe.

In its first 25 years, the pro-celebrity race has never been won by a woman in either the pro or celebrity category.

"Me and Goldberg have turned it into a battle of the sexes," Kendall said. "Neither one of us wants to be in the first race won by a girl. We have some fragile male egos."

Patrick is basically networking this weekend, hoping to get her name out with an eye toward landing a ride in the Toyota Atlantic Series, which has replaced Indy Lights as CART's primary development series.

"It's not what you know, it's who you know," she said. "The more talk about a single person, the better it is. Out of sight, out of mind."

And in Europe, Patrick was out of sight. Today, people will be watching her.

In provisional qualifying for the Atlantic race, Hylton Motorsports rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay, hoping to give team owner Keith Hylton his second consecutive Atlantic championship, took the pole with an average speed of 89.687 mph.

Rookie Jon Fogarty, the winner on the road course in Monterrey in the season opener, was second to Hunter-Reay at 89.468 mph, Alex Gurney of Newport Beach was fourth and rookie Luis Diaz was fifth, all for Dorricott Racing, the team that produced two of the last three champions in the defunct Lights series.

Michael Valiante of Lynx Racing was third at 89.451 mph. The first seven drivers were within six-tenths of a second of Hunter-Reay.

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