- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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It's unlikely that Katherine Legge will ever become a one-name celebrity phenomenon like Danica you-know-who. But there is a distinct possibility she will develop into a better and more successful race car driver.
Legge, 25, from Northampton, England, accomplished something Danica Patrick didn't do in two years of trying by winning three races in the Toyota Atlantic Championship in 2005. This week, she took the next step in her rapidly advancing career by completing an extensive two-day test in one of PKV Racing's Lola/Ford-Cosworth Champ Cars at Sebring International Raceway.
Legge was quite competitive, running a best lap of 51.51 seconds, about half a second slower than times turned in the same car last week (albeit in faster conditions) by Giorgio Pantano and Ryan Briscoe.
"The test went really well, but it's such a relief that it's over," Legge said. "I've been so stressed because I wanted to do a good job and make a good impression so badly. It was an awesome experience and I have to give a huge thanks to both PKV Racing and team co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven for this opportunity."
Legge made a strong impression on Kalkhoven from the first time she met him. In November 2004, when Kalkhoven flew to the UK to announce his acquisition of engine maker Cosworth Racing, she staked out the Cosworth offices in her hometown and introduced herself. Kalkhoven made her no promises, but he arranged an Atlantic test for Legge with Polestar Racing. She was impressive enough to win the seat.
Not only that, Legge won the Atlantic season opener at Long Beach to become the first female driver to win a race in the 30-year history of America's top junior single-seater series. Her feat was recently voted the Top 2005 Racing Moment in Southern California on lasports.org, the Web site of the Los Angeles Sports Council. She went on to log additional victories at Edmonton and San Jose, the win at Edmonton coming after a spectacular pass of eventual series champion Charles Zwolsmann.
Comparisons between Katherine and Danica were inevitable, especially given Patrick's two years in the Atlantic series, where she earned a pole at Portland in 2004 but never won a race. Admittedly, the field Patrick raced with in Atlantics was considerably stronger and featured stars like A.J. Allmendinger, Jon Fogarty and Michael Valiante. But the fact that Legge beat the field she raced three times, a feat Patrick never accomplished once, cannot be ignored.
Legge's rising profile in America led to several interesting opportunities in the offseason. She tested a Minardi Formula One car and was invited to shake down Great Britain's A1-GP entry prior to the Dubai round.
"How cool is that?" she exclaimed. "It's unbelievable really. I thought I learned so much this season, but I've learned even more in the offseason."
Yet it was all a prelude to what really mattered: Legge's test with PKV, which is in the process of filling one or two Champ Car seats for the 2006 season. For most of 2005, it was expected that Legge would remain in Atlantics for 2006, where a new chassis and engine are being introduced. But her form in the F1 and A1-GP cars convinced PKV co-owners Kalkhoven, Dan Pettit and Jimmy Vasser to be open-minded about moving her up to Champ Cars in 2006. And her two days in a PKV Lola didn't do anything to sour their opinion.
"Katherine did a great job and she's definitely not afraid to push the car to the limit," said Vasser, who remains undecided whether he will continue driving in 2006. "We all watched her race last year in Atlantics and we knew that she was a good driver, but until you work with someone you don't truly know how determined they are. After these last two days, one thing I know for sure now is that she has a tremendous amount of determination and the talent to compete at this level."
She ran 119 laps each day for a two-day total of 393 miles, shaving half a second off her best time on the second day. Legge said it was the most time she had ever spent in a race car "by a big, big way, and it was the most brutal car I've driven in my career. It kind of proved strength and fitness are not an issue."
Of course, the big question is whether, after a single year in Atlantics, is Legge ready to graduate to Champ cars? The notion of drivers being rushed along for marketing or publicity purposes was a hot topic at Andretti Green Racing's announcement that 18-year old Marco Andretti will drive in the IRL IndyCar Series next year, and there is no question that Champ Car, NASCAR and even F1 are in a race to land "The Next Danica."
Legge downplays comparisons with Patrick, and admits that she can't determine whether she is ready to move up to Champ cars or not.
"It's the question that everybody has been asking me and the answer is I don't know," she said. "I think I could be ready for it speed-wise, but I don't know how much my lack of experience is going to hurt me. Half of me wants to do Atlantics again, because there will be a new car and loads of good drivers and the $2 million prize fund.
But the other half wonders if I would be better off doing a year in the big cars.
"I thought I'd have a gut feeling after these two days, but I think myself and everyone in the team have some soul-searching to do in the coming days. I'm hoping to learn sooner rather than later."
Pettit says that PKV is in no hurry to make a decision. Aside from Legge, Pantano, Briscoe, Vasser and Ryan Dalziel are all in the mix. Cristiano da Matta, who drove for the team in 2005 and won at Portland but failed to negotiate a contract extension, is reportedly still a possibility. The team may wind up running three cars.
"We have a lot of information and data to evaluate, which we will do in a careful, conscientious and businesslike manner," Pettit said.
"We will take all the time we need to make a decision that is best for the team now and in the future."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.