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Racetrack braces for Danica's local debut
Jul 14, 2005 12:00 am
July 13, 2005
Even as Nashville Superspeedway braces for its first onslaught of Danicamania, the object of the nation's open-wheel racing affection sees the Gladeville track as just another facility she is seeing for the first time.
"I've been in Nashville before, but never on the track," Indy Racing League rookie Danica Patrick told reporters during a conference call yesterday. "I just ask the boys when I get to the track what I should expect.
"I'll do my homework, watch some tape and see the track from a driver's point of view."
By the time she hits the 1.33-mile concrete oval for practice Friday, she'll have a good idea of what to expect, thanks to her Rahal Letterman teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira.
"Already, they've got a lot of good information on the track from Buddy Rice's run here last year," said NSS vice president and general manager Cliff Hawks, who has a few tickets remaining for Saturday's 6 p.m. Firestone Indy 200.
Patrick turned the racing world on its ear in May when she became the first female to lead the Indianapolis 500 on her way to a fourth-place finish, also the highest for a woman in the 89-year history of the race. That performance prompted Sports Illustrated to place the 23-year-old on its cover ahead of race winner Dan Wheldon.
She and the rest of the IRL IndyCar Series teams will practice a couple of times Friday before qualifying at 4 p.m. Following a late practice at 7, she and some of the other drivers will participate in an autograph session at 8.
Since the Indy 500, Patrick's autograph sessions have seen fans wait up to several hours to get her signature, prompting NSS officials to limit this session to the first 400 fans who called for passes Monday morning.
Those passes went in one hour, 20 minutes, said Hawks, noting a phenomenom like Patrick has never hit the Superspeedway in its five years of operation.
"We had Carl Edwards two weeks after he won the Busch race and Cup race in Atlanta, which created a real buzz for the Pepsi 300," Hawks said of last March's NASCAR Busch race. "But I've never seen a driver create more of a buzz around one of our series as Danica Patrick."
Despite becoming a household name among race fans, Patrick said she is still able to live a normal life.
"For the most part, I walk around pretty easily," she said. "I go to restaurants pretty easily. It's been okay.
"Sometimes, people do say things … But it means they're a fan and they're paying attention to our sport."
Her male counterparts say any attention she receives is good for the decade-old IRL.
"I've been doing a lot of these teleconference calls and I've never talked to someone from the New York Times," Tomas Scheckter said from Germany during the call. "She brings a lot of media and attention to this sport."
Scheckter's Panther Racing teammate, Buddy Lazier, also participated in the call. One of the IRL's early stars, the 1996 Indy 500 winner and 2000 series champion, won the circuit's first race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2001. But as the league has picked up more drivers and teams from rival CART, Lazier has struggled to stay in the game. But he remembers the track.
"It's a bumpy racetrack," Lazier said. "It's fast.
"Good racecars will find a way to get to the front. You need good handling and horsepower."
Lazier still has the guitar he won here.
"I play it every once in a while," Lazier said. "But I understand they've really improved them since that inaugural year.
"It's a special place."
Saturday's race will be televised on ESPN, which may be the option for those unable to get tickets.
"There are some left, but it's getting scarce," Hawks said late yesterday afternoon. "Ticket sales are going really, really well.
"Premium-plus is sold out and I expect general admission tickets to be sold out by midday (Wednesday)."
The IRL sold out the first three years at the Superspeedway before falling just short last year.
"It was as close to a sellout as you can possibly get," Hawks said of last year.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at email@example.com.