INDIANAPOLIS — Ever since Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977, the story line for women at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been how she, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher made the starting field -- not about their chances to win.
Danica Patrick has changed that.
America's newest racing find, a 23-year-old rookie driver from Roscoe, Ill., earned her place among the favorites for the May 29 race last Sunday when she qualified fourth -- and came within a bobble of winning the pole for the 89th running of the 500.
She might seem too tiny -- barely 5 feet 2 and 100 pounds -- but she knows how to control a 650-horsepower machine at speeds up to 230 mph around a 2 1/2 -mile race track as well as any man here.
She will start fourth in the 500, right behind pole-sitter Tony Kanaan, last year's Indy Racing League champion, but in her mind she should be on the pole. A sideways twitch in one of former winner Bobby Rahal's cars as she entered the first turn of a four-lap qualifying attempt made the difference between her time of 2 minutes 38.5875 seconds and Kanaan's 2:38.1961 for 10 miles.
"I am disappointed because I know I had a car capable of winning the pole and I didn't because I drove it too hard into the corner and it stepped out on me," she said. "I shouldn't be mad, being on the second row, but I am.
"I was the fastest car on track in the morning warmup and I really wanted to be on the pole."
Before qualifying, Patrick ran a practice lap of 229.880 mph, the fastest ever turned by a woman at Indianapolis.
So, for the first time, a woman is here with all the right credentials -- talent, racing background, championship-team support, confidence and fearlessness.
Guthrie and St. James were both over 40 when they made the 500 and never were serious contenders. Fisher was even younger than Patrick when she qualified in 2000 but had been rushed into the IRL without the preparation that has benefited Patrick. Fisher was 19, with only a sprint car background, and never had a ride with a contending team.
Patrick, on the other hand, is with a top-tier team, one that won last year with Buddy Rice, and she doesn't mind being one of the guys.
"I've been racing for 13 years and all the time it was against males, so being the only woman in the 500 is really nothing new to me," Patrick said. "Besides, I do not think of myself as a woman driver. I am just another Indy car driver out there. We are all the same when we are sitting behind the wheel."
She has been preparing for this since she was in the fifth grade back home in Roscoe, a north-central Illinois town of about 6,000 just north of Rockford.
"It has been my dream since I started racing karts when I was 10 to race in the Indianapolis 500 and now I'm here and I want to make the most of it," she said.
That goal has been fed by continued success, in karts, two years of highly competitive formula car racing in England, and three years of working her way toward Indy cars under the watchful eye of Rahal, winner of the 1986 Indy 500 and three Indy car championships.
In only her fourth Indy Racing League race two weeks ago in Japan, Patrick started from the front row and finished fourth. During rookie orientation last week, she was fastest from the first day, faster even than Sebastien Bourdais, the Champ Car series champion, and Patrick Carpentier, a veteran of eight Champ Car seasons.
"I may have less experience than a lot of them, but I have the advantage of having last year's winning team behind me," she said. "That is a great advantage for a rookie driver."
Rahal, who first saw her racing in England in 2000, says she is, as racers say, "the real thing."
"Don't let that sweet little smile and that long black hair fool you," he warned. "When she has her driving suit on, before she pulls on her gloves, the only time I think of her as a young lady is when I see her pink fingernails. When the gloves go on, she's a racer."
Rahal was asked if his protege was moving too fast too soon.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "We have been methodical in her approach to everything here, and she's been methodically going through it, through the setup changes, and has been very focused. I keep telling her, 'Just stay focused, stay quiet, and just keep thinking about what you're doing,' and she's doing that, obviously very well."
Other drivers, the ones who might be running side by side with her at frightening speeds, speak highly of her attitude and ability.
Said Tomas Scheckter, the South African whose father Jody was a Formula One champion: "She's done an unbelievable job. It's great. She's got her head screwed on straight, no doubt about it. This place really takes a couple of deep breaths to get around here quick, and Danica's really done a super job as a rookie.