May 29, 2005

4th place winner

Once a year I am a huge racing fan.

Ever since I was a child, this day belonged to racing. On a warm Sunday, in the heart of Indiana, I await the call to 'Start your engines'. It's easy to pick up this sport once a year - like a soap opera - the plot lines continue. Except each year, old drivers have become owners. The Andretti families feud the Rahal families. The names don't change but the winners do. Today, the Indianapolis 500 did not disappoint.

Today as the 23yr old flashed by, men in the stands stood and cheered. And she wasn't flashing her tits.

As THIS 23yr old flashed by, she showed the broadside of a finely tuned car doing over 200 mph - leading the race. For the first time in history, a woman led a lap. Not just one, but two, and three and a dozen. Everyone in the stands around the entire stadium stood and cheered.

There she was passing cars on her way back from 16th place after her car died in pit row. There she was recovering from a spinout and heading down into the pits for repairs. There she was stupendously handling another driver sliding down into her when she was lapping him.

There she was, leading lap after lap. It wasn't just the men in the stadium. It was an entire TV universe of auto racing fans standing and cheering. When she passed Wheldon at the restart on lap 190, I was in tears. There she was, leading the race with less than 10 laps to go. I will never forget this moment - where I was and how it unfolded.

As Wheldon sought to pass her at 100% of fuel speed, she had to conserve hers. Her fuel might not last her until the checkered flag. So she couldn't take on the battle but had to continue to stay with the fuel conservation and draft her way into 4th, hoping for a yellow caution. Her spotter told her to keep looking forward. Her team co-owner, David Letterman, refused to talk to any TV person - dumbfounded that one of this team was in 2nd and the other was in 4th. Her mother stood frozen hoping for safety even more than hoping for her win. Mothers are the same everywhere.

The first woman to start in 4th from the pole position - finished in 4th. Despite the crashes and pit stop mishaps, this rookie finished in 4th. In reality, she won.

Fittingly, as the winner ran out of gas after the warm down lap and was being pushed toward the winners' circle, Danika stepped out of her car. Every camera and TV crew within a half a state, descended on her. She stepped out, into the warm embrace of Rahal - the man who chose her, trusted her and knew his faith would be born out.

The 5' 2" dynamo started answering the TV interviewers' questions. She is unaware she is woman as she takes off the elastic band holding her black mane of hair. Her fingers run through it over and over again and a generation of men swooned to their knees at her arrival. She's smart and polite - but not in that over-scripted 'name all my sponsors' kind of way. She acknowledges how smart the team was. She talks about being a rookie and making rookie mistakes but wasn't it amazing that with just 6 laps to go, low fuel aside, she had an opportunity to win?! In studio interviews later, she easily references driving personalities and incidents from other races. She loves what she does, she's immersed in it - and it shows.

When asked if she felt her race vindicated whether or not, as a rookie, she deserved to be there, she talked about her ability to come back from several cars back, to go pole to pole with a chance to win at the end. It was never about being a female - she talked about being a rookie with the backing of an incredibly smart, smart team. She was a driver bouncing off endorphins of having finished in the top 5 in arguably the most notorious race of the year. Not a female driver - a rookie driver. A damn fine rookie driver who just put a lot of other drivers on notice that she is seriously for real.

The AP headline: Wheldon Holds Off Patrick, Wins Indy 500. Anyone know who finished third? Me either.