ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
In Indianapolis, Memorial Day weekend means the roar of racing engines, and this year's Indy 500 could have a final lap unlike any in history. Rookie Danica Patrick is driving for a topflight team and has a real chance of becoming the first woman ever to win this race. Quinn Klinefelter of Detroit Public Radio reports that possibility is generating a real buzz.
QUINN KLINEFELTER reporting:
At a hotel in New York City's Times Square, the 33 drivers racing at the Indy 500 sit at individual tables, awaiting questions from reporters. But most of the attention and the television cameras are trained on one driver, Danica Patrick.
I'm sure you're aware of this, but you are the hottest story of the month at Indianapolis.
Ms. DANICA PATRICK (Qualifier, Indianapolis 500): Is that why I haven't had lunch yet? 'Cause I've been pretty busy, and I got here last night in New York City, and, you know, we did, like 13 interviews in a row last night, and I have no idea how many yet we've done today.
KLINEFELTER: The attention isn't surprising, given Patrick's terrific start to her Indy car career. The rookie driver posted the fastest practice speed at Indy this month, around 229 miles an hour, and would have qualified first if not for briefly sliding sideways during her run. Instead, she qualified fourth. But Patrick says she has the experience to reach the front of the field.
Ms. PATRICK: I know what it's like out there. I know how those guys think. And for the most part, we're all thinking the same thing, that we want to go win, and we want to be the fastest car on the track. So we're all the same.
KLINEFELTER: In the hotel ballroom, there aren't that many cameras pointed at the driver who did qualify in the pole position, Tony Kanaan. And many of the questions he does get are about Danica Patrick.
Mr. TONY KANAAN (Pole Position, Indianapolis 500): It's been such a men's sport for so many years that you always--you know, `You're going to have to wear high heels if she beats you,' and this and that. But I think it's good to have a woman in the series. She draws a lot of attention, so that means we're going to bring more people to the racetrack, even if they're going to cheer for her.
KLINEFELTER: Like any professional driver, Patrick has sought publicity. But this night, Patrick isn't in town only for the media exposure. She's there to meet the boss of her race car team, who just happens to have his own network television show.
(Soundbite of "Late Show with David Letterman")
Mr. BILL WENDELL: It's the "Late Show with David Letterman."
KLINEFELTER: Last year, Letterman's team, which is co-owned by Indy racing legend Bobby Rahal, earned its first Indy 500 victory. This year, the team's lead driver is Danica Patrick, who could make history as the first woman to win a major motor race. Letterman told Patrick the fact that's never happened before puzzles him.
(Soundbite of "Late Show with David Letterman")
Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Host, "Late Show with David Letterman"): Why aren't there more women doing this?
Ms. PATRICK: I don't know. Percentagewise, we're just down. What's your theory, Dave?
Mr. LETTERMAN: I don't know. It's...
(Soundbite of laughter)
KLINEFELTER: There's never been a question about Patrick's driving talent. By age 16, she'd already earned three national go-cart titles, then spent three years honing her skills on the tough, twisty tracks of England. In 1997, Patrick appeared on an ESPN special and said she'd already cleared a space in her bedroom for her childhood dream.
(Soundbite of ESPN broadcast)
Ms. PATRICK: The one thing missing from this room, though, is the Indianapolis 500 trophy. That's my goal. If I get that, I'll be putting it in a glass case and pet it and shine it up every now and then. That's what's missing in here.
(Soundbite of race car)
KLINEFELTER: At the Indy Speedway, track management is thrilled with the flurry of interest in Patrick. Despite being the world's most famous race, Indy's profile has slipped in recent years as interest in NASCAR's stock car racing skyrocketed. With one wave of the checkered flag, Patrick has a chance to resurrect her sports image, make a statement for her gender and achieve her childhood dream. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter.
(Soundbite of race cars)
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