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Patrick's shot at history is the pits

May 26, 2008|Bill Dwyre

INDIANAPOLIS -- 'Twas interesting they should make such a big deal out of this year's Indy 500 being a race of unification. Chances are Danica Patrick and Ryan Briscoe were not feeling all that unified after the dust and dents cleared here Sunday.

Open-wheel racing is holding hands as one functioning group after 12 years of fussin' and fightin'. You can expect any Patrick-Briscoe future hand-holding to take longer.

Sunday's Hatfield and McCoy moment took place on the 172nd lap of the 200 that constitute this Memorial Day weekend tradition. The 200,000-plus people who came to enjoy the racing, bask in the warm weather and drink lots of beer -- order of importance is anybody's guess -- were gearing up for a great finish to a competitive and interesting race.

Making it even better was that one of their favorites, Patrick, was within striking distance, even though she wasn't making much progress on the leaders and had earlier declared over her radio to her pit crew, "I'm just slow."

She had broken through at Indy in 2005, even led some laps, and had finished all three 500 races she had started. Then, with her cover-girl looks and pleasant personality, her star had rocketed when she won a race in Japan last month, becoming the first woman to win a major open-wheel race.

So, as most of the cars pitted on a yellow caution light, hope was high for her chances to win.

The pit stop was routine, quick. But pit row at Indy is even worse than the 405 Freeway, and when she exited, Briscoe, an Australian driving one of Roger Penske's cars, clipped her on his way out and spun her into the inside pit wall. She came to rest at the end of pit row.

In a sport of massive, frightening crashes, this one was a parking lot fender-bender. But these expensive cars, built to run 230 mph, are also as delicate as an eggshell. Briscoe's little tap knocked several pieces of metal off Patrick's car, including things crucial to speed and steering.

Patrick slammed her fist on the steering wheel, knowing her day was over. The crowd groaned. So did the press room, which had been poised to document the heretofore unheard-of -- a woman winning the Indy 500.

Ah, and what a story it would have been.

She had already achieved rare sports one-name status. Pele. Kobe. Tiger. Danica.

She didn't need to dance with stars. She was one.

She was 26, only 5 feet 2 and 100 pounds, and 90 of that seemed to be centered in her accelerator foot. She sat for photo shoots in suggestive poses that somehow seemed to translate into girl-next-door wholesomeness.

She was patient with the media, had a nice husband and parents, was articulate and smart.

All in all, she was perfect to break down one of the great male-only walls, the Indy 500, where the guys complained years ago with the arrival of driver Janet Guthrie, because that meant somebody had to put a door on the bathroom.

All eyes were on the No. 7 blue car, as her crew towed Patrick back to her pit. Quickly, she hoisted herself out and headed south along pit row. She still had her helmet on, but her purposeful stride negated the need to see her face. Parked a few yards away, still in his car -- also out of the race -- was Briscoe.

Almost there, with a Tony Stewart punch-out-the-other-driver moment possible, a track security man headed her off. A press box full of reporters groaned. In a split second, they had gone from front page back to sports page. Never again will a security guy be so loathed for doing his job so well.

Afterward, the quotes, gathered by trackside reporters, left no doubt as to the chances of Patrick and Briscoe having dinner together Sunday night.

"I was going down pit lane, and as people pull out of their pit boxes if you are in the outside lane, then you have to wait to blend in," Patrick said. "From what I know, it looked like it was pretty obvious what happened."

Not to Briscoe.

"From what I can see," he said, "there was still plenty of room on the right side for her to get around. . . . We both have a brake pedal in our cars."

A mediator would have his hands full here.

Afterward, the doors on Patrick's garage in Gasoline Alley remained closed, despite crewmen coming and going with equipment. People seeking a quick glimpse, or even an autograph, awaited any kind of Danica sighting. None was forthcoming.

Two young men got into a loud and obscene argument about whether she had the right to leave her fans standing there, unfulfilled. Several said they'd been there more than 45 minutes. In the end, it was a rock star crowd minus the rock star.

One alley away, Helio Castroneves, a rock star in his own right, who danced his way around the track well enough to finish in fourth place, stood and signed for a huge crowd.

Still, on this day, with expectations so high and disappointment so deep, Patrick deserved a pass. As drivers are fond of saying, that's racing.

Or, as Patrick might reason: You win some, you lose some and sometimes Ryan Briscoe runs into you.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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