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Danica Drove Public Interest, TV Ratings into Higher Gear with Stunning Indy Debut

Note: This continues a series of feature stories highlighting historic milestones and anniversaries honored in 2020 leading up to Legends Day presented by Firestone on Saturday, Aug 22 at IMS.


INDYCAR team owner Bobby Rahal made a splash in May 2004 when he strolled into the Media Center at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Danica Patrick to announce he was fielding a car for her in the 2005 Indianapolis 500.


Patrick had shown great promise in the junior open-wheel ranks but was largely not on the public radar, known only to hardcore racing fans for her outings in Formula Ford and Formula Vauxhall in the United Kingdom and Barber Dodge Pro and Toyota Atlantic in the United States.


Fast-forward 12 months to May 2005, and that splash from the prior year became a cannonball gusher of water after a leap from the high-dive board. Danicamania became one of the biggest crazes in North American motorsports history, and she became a global cultural phenomenon.


Patrick arrived at Indy in May 2005 with an excellent chance at success despite being a 23-year-old rookie. Rahal Letterman Racing was the reigning champion of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” with driver Buddy Rice winning the rain-shortened race in 2004.


Naturally, Rice was seen by many as a favorite to win again. But he was prevented from driving in the race in 2005 after suffering a concussion in a crash during practice and was replaced by 1999 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack, making his first “500” start since suffering multiple injuries in a crash in October 2003 at Texas Motor Speedway.


Patrick was the source of intense media attention from the opening day of practice Sunday, May 8. That spotlight became white-hot after she led both days of Rookie Orientation and veteran refresher practice, turning a top speed of 222.741 mph Monday, May 9 in the No. 16 Rahal Letterman Racing Argent Pioneer Panoz/Honda.


Many longtime observers thought the heavyweight giants of INDYCAR would put the 5-foot, 2-inch, 105-pound Patrick in her place once veteran practice opened Tuesday, May 10.


Think again.


Patrick whipped the racing world into a frenzy during practice Thursday, May 12 by turning the top lap of the day and month, 227.633, among all of the veterans. She became the first woman to lead the speed chart on a practice day without rain at Indy since Janet Guthrie on May 7, 1977.


The hype immediately shifted into overdrive. Could Danica become the first woman to win the pole at Indianapolis just two days later?


She was third fastest on a rain-shortened Fast Friday at 226.769 mph. Pole Day was washed out Saturday, May 14, moving to Sunday, May 15.


Patrick ripped off the fastest lap of the month, 229.880, in the pre-qualifying practice Sunday morning in temperatures in the mid-50s, with cloudy skies and steady west winds approaching 15 mph. A pole was looking like more and more of a probability, not a dream.


Patrick was the eighth driver to attempt to qualify. The racing world held its breath as she exited pit lane to make her four-lap run possibly into history.


But it all went wrong on Lap 1.


Patrick’s car became unsettled in Turn 1, but she kept her foot planted to the floor. The rear of the car stepped sideways momentarily, and she corralled the car and continued. But that bobble dropped her first-lap speed to 224.920 mph.


She rallied to run laps of 227.638, 227.623 and 227.860 on her final three laps, good for an average speed of 227.004. She still earned the fourth spot on the starting grid, a record for a female driver at Indianapolis.


By the time Race Week arrived, Danicamania was at fever pitch. She was the center of attention everywhere she went at the track, hounded by autograph seekers, picture takers and gawkers. She absorbed most of the media attention during a Media Tour of the starting field of 33 drivers to New York City to start race week.


Patrick further heightened expectations by leading the Carb Day final practice at 225.597 on Friday, May 27. She flexed considerable muscle and savvy that betrayed her rookie status all month. She was no fluke, no novelty.


She was a potential race winner two days later, and everyone knew it.


Race Day dawned with perfect conditions Sunday, May 29 – sunny skies, 72 degrees, light winds


Patrick started fourth and continued to run in the top five at Lap 40. A pit stop sequence started shortly thereafter. Leader Sam Hornish Jr. pitted on Lap 55, with Patrick taking the lead on Lap 56 to make history as the first woman to lead a lap in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”


It wasn’t the last time she would lead, but she almost never got the chance to again drive to the front of the field.


On a restart on Lap 155, Patrick did a quarter-spin to the left and collected the car of Tomas Enge. That fracas triggered an accident that also involved the cars of Tomas Scheckter, Jeff Bucknum, Patrick Carpentier and Jaques Lazier.


Patrick headed to pit road under yellow for a replacement of the damaged nosecone on her car, a stop that took 60 seconds and appeared to end her chances for victory. But she quickly dove back into the pits on Lap 159 for four tires and fuel on a smart strategy call by Rahal Letterman, trying to put her into a position to run longer than the leaders and regain track position.


The leaders of the race all pitted on Lap 172 during a subsequent caution period, with only Patrick and Bryan Herta staying out. When the green flag flew on Lap 173, Patrick was at the lead and the huge crowd was on its feet, cheering.


Patrick kept the lead through Lap 185 before being passed by Dan Wheldon just before an accident by Kosuke Matsuura that triggered a caution period.


After the restart, Patrick rocketed past Wheldon on the front straight to take the lead on Lap 190. The entire crowd stood and roared with a din that could be heard above the roaring engines in one of the most spine-tingling moments in Indy 500 history.


Ten laps to go. Could she do it? Could she really win?


The lead was short-lived, as Wheldon passed Patrick in Turn 1 on Lap 194. He led by .6641 of a second after that lap, but Patrick trimmed the gap to .4353 of a second after Lap 195. The margin shrunk even more after Lap 196, down to .3544 of a second.


Four laps to go. Could she catch Wheldon? Could she really win?


But Patrick started to fade because she had to save fuel to make it to the finish, and any hope of catching Wheldon ended on Lap 198 when Sebastien Bourdais hit the SAFER Barrier in Turn 4 to trigger a caution period that ended the race.


Patrick finished fourth, at the time the best result ever by a woman in 89 editions of the Indianapolis 500. She had become a global superstar, helping to add 3.7 million more viewers to the ABC telecast of the race in 2005 than in the previous year. She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week. She appeared on nighttime network talk shows. She inspired millions of girls around the world to chase their dreams.


It was a Month of May unlike few others in the history of the grand, old race. Few who witnessed Danicamania will forget it.

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