Lady Is a Champ

Cheerleader-turned-racer revving up.

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Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport, 2301 North Marginal Road 9:30 a.m. Thursday, July 1, 8 a.m. Friday, July 2, and 10 a.m. Saturday, July 3; $5 to $35; call 888-817-7223
Va-va-vroom! Danika Patrick gears up for the Grand - Prix.
Va-va-vroom! Danika Patrick gears up for the Grand Prix.
At 5-foot-1 and 100 pounds, Danica Patrick looks more like the perky high-school cheerleader she used to be than the tenacious race-car driver she is now. Bring up open-wheel racing, and she can talk about fuel injection, twin-cam engines, and five-speed transmissions like a seasoned auto mechanic. And her handshake is as solid as her gritty determination.

"My dad [race-car driver TJ Patrick] always told me you only have one chance to make a first impression," says the 22-year-old Patrick, who will drive Car No. 24 at this weekend's Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland. "So I take that opportunity to make an impression that everyone remembers. Over the years, the handshake has almost become my trademark."

Along with her magazine-cover looks. Born and raised near the Wisconsin-Illinois border, Patrick turned heads at the age of 10, when she began racing go-karts. By the time she was 15, she had won the World Karting Association's Grand National Championship and started to compete in the European Formula Ford Series in England. There, she met racing legend Bobby Rahal, who signed her to a contract with Team Rahal, the auto-racing empire he co-owns with David Letterman. "Danica is as comfortable as a personality in front of a corporate audience as she is in the cockpit of the car," says Rahal. "She is the rare athlete who excels on both fronts."

Last year, Patrick stepped up to the Toyota Atlantic Championships, the 18-driver farm team of the prestigious Champ Car World Series. In the first race of her rookie season, she finished third to become the first woman in the series' 30-year history to stand on the podium. But the milestone was the last thing on Patrick's mind. "It is the media and the other drivers who make a big deal out of it," says Patrick, who'd rather focus on improving her fifth-place finish in last year's race in Cleveland.

The action starts Thursday with BMW, Trans-Am, Toyota Atlantic, and Champ Car qualifying rounds. At 4 p.m. Friday, the BMWs take to the Burke Airport track, followed by the Trans-Am race an hour later. On Saturday, Patrick and other Atlantic drivers will start their engines at 2:30 p.m. for a 50-minute whirl before the 97-lap Champ Car battle at 5 p.m. "I want to run the Indianapolis 500, and I would love to race Champ cars," Patrick says. "But all I want is an opportunity to race and to win."

Rahal's more than willing to give her the chance; Patrick's racing skills have improved immensely since she signed with his team. "If you, as a driver, aren't showing improvement and sharpening your skills, it's time to think about another line of work," Rahal says.

Don't save Patrick a place in the unemployment line; she has no intention of turning in her car keys. "I still have to perform and take advantage of the chance," she says. "I will know I have arrived as a driver when people stop calling me a female racer and just call me a racer."

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