'Danica mania' stole Wheldon's thunder

Originally Published: October 20, 2005
Associated Press

It was a season to remember for Dan Wheldon. But will anybody else remember what he accomplished?

Wheldon became the first IndyCar Series driver to win the Indianapolis 500 and the series championship in the same year. He set a record for victories in a season with six, and proved in every way that he's a world-class driver.

Unfortunately for the talented 27-year-old Englishman, he chose 2005 in which to do it.

Even as Wheldon dominated the IndyCar Series, the spotlight was on Danica Patrick, the 23-year-old rookie who created a national phenomenon dubbed "Danica Mania."

Patrick, the only woman in the series, began the season needing to prove she belonged after a so-so couple of years in the developmental Toyota Atlantic Series, where Patrick generally competed among the top 10 but never won a race.

It was something of a surprise when Bobby Rahal, a Hall of Fame driver and now co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing, announced the team would field an IndyCar full time for Patrick in 2005.

"My instructions to her were very simple," Rahal said. "I told her over and over, the idea was to take care of the car and finish races this year. Seat time was more important than anything for somebody with no experience in these cars. She obviously did more than we expected of her."

Patrick, whose only real claim to fame going into the season was a sexy photo layout in 2004 in a men's magazine, said she would follow Rahal's instructions and was determined to reward him for the trust in her.

The season began badly when Patrick was caught up in a crash in the opener and had a mild concussion. She was able to finish the next two events on the track before suddenly bursting into prominence in Motegi, Japan, by qualifying second, leading 32 laps and finishing fourth.

The next race, the Indy 500 in May, put her over the top.

Patrick was among the fastest drivers throughout the nearly monthlong event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She wound up setting records for a female competitor by qualifying fourth, leading the race and finishing fourth.

That dazzling performance was the highlight of her rookie of the year season, but Patrick suddenly had become a national figure, appearing on talk shows, posing for magazine covers, becoming a crowd favorite whose autograph was more prized than that of any other IndyCar driver.

None of it fazed the determined youngster, whose focus on her job -- despite the swirl of excitement around her just about every minute she was at a racetrack -- seemed unswerving.

"I went into the season hoping that I would be rookie of the year, hoping that I would be rookie of the year at Indy, hoping that I would have successes, hoping that I would make progress each and every race," Patrick said. "I feel like that's what I do. So I walk away from the year saying, 'Yeah, I did what I hoped, what I potentially expected from the year.'"

Even knowing that the attention Patrick was bringing to the still-struggling IndyCar Series -- far behind NASCAR in national impact -- was good for the whole series, some of her competitors were unhappy -- perhaps jealous -- about "Danica Mania."

The week after Wheldon's big victory at Indy, he showed up at Texas Motor Speedway with a T-shirt that read: "I won the Indy 500 -- Really!"

Even her Rahal Letterman teammates, Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira, got into the act, wearing T-shirts that read: "Danica's teammate" and "Danica's other teammate."

Tony Kanaan, Wheldon's teammate on the powerful Andretti Green Racing team and the 2004 series champion, let off some steam at midseason, criticizing Patrick and wondering aloud why someone who had never won a race was getting all the attention.

But Patrick, who has remained friendly with Kanaan, shrugged off all the negatives.

"You know, staying in the media for various reasons isn't always the worst thing in the world," she said. "I believe the important people around me, sponsors and team owners, are happy with the way things have gone.

"And, on the track, where it's important, I think the fact that everybody's using up all the space around me means that they're getting used to me and that they trust me, that they respect me."

Wheldon has walked a tightrope throughout the season, constantly being asked to comment about Patrick and how each of his exploits relate to her.

"Well, you know, she was something different," Wheldon said. "But I don't begrudge her anything. I can look back at what I've accomplished with my team this year and be very happy. And, I suspect, she feels the same."

Wheldon's championship was the second in a row for the team co-owned by former racing champion Michael Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree. Kanaan finished second in the points, followed by Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti, another Andretti Green driver.

Combined with Bryan Herta, the fourth AGR driver who won a race and finished eighth in the standings, the team won 11 of 17 races.

"It's a special team,'' said Andretti, who added he expects all four drivers back in 2006. "We're enjoying special times. Hopefully, we're going to enjoy some more of them."

As for Wheldon, he says he can't wait for next season to start.

"This is only my second full season in IndyCars and I still feel like I learn a lot from my teammates," he said. "They've been around for a long time at the top level and performed very, very well. I'd just like to keep winning as much as I possibly can."

Looking a little further into the future, Wheldon noted that Andretti's 18-year-old son, Marco, who is moving up through the ranks, probably will make it to the IndyCar Series in a year or two.

"When you think Danica grabbed the headlines, you wait until he starts," Wheldon said, grinning. "She'll be jealous of him."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press