NEW YORK – Dan Wheldon stood up in his replica race car on a busy Manhattan street and lifted his index finger to photographers, almost as a reminder that he, not Danica Patrick, had won the Indianapolis 500.
As Wheldon posed, a man passing by peered through the crowd to get a glimpse.
“Where’s the girl?” he asked.
It’s been that sort of week for the Indy champion.
Wheldon has won four of the first five IndyCar Series races this season, including the biggest of them all, but he’s just one of the boys in a sport suddenly known for one 23-year-old rookie.
“Who cares?” Wheldon said with a grin. “I won the race.”
That he did, but Patrick finished fourth at Indianapolis, the best showing ever by a woman – and her place in history has received a lot more attention than Wheldon’s spot in Victory Lane.
“To tell you the truth, I really don’t care,” he said Tuesday. “It’s the self-satisfaction of winning this race for me. This is all I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
A long time only in the most relative of terms. The 26-year-old Briton hardly looks old enough to drive a car, let alone win auto racing’s most storied race. It took him just three tries at Indianapolis – his boss, Michael Andretti, started 14 races without ever taking the checkered flag.
Any other year, that might be enough to make him an open-wheel star. Instead, he was lucky to make headlines.
Asked if too many people were focusing on Patrick, he turned practical.
“She happens to be very cute, she’s obviously very talented,” he said. “She’s great for the sport. She’s confident when she speaks, she’s confident in her own ability.”
Patrick qualified fourth at Indy, the highest starting spot for a woman. That was much better than 19th – Sarah Fisher’s position in last year’s race – yet still Patrick was disappointed.
“I don’t mean this in a derogatory kind of way, but the last female racer in IndyCar Series I think would be happy with that,” he said.
At only 100 pounds, Patrick’s weight became an issue last weekend. NASCAR’s Robby Gordon said he would not race against her, claiming she had an unfair advantage.
Wheldon – a slender 157 pounds – didn’t want to take anything away from Patrick’s performance, but did explain the worry over weight.
“It makes a big difference,” Wheldon said. “If it didn’t in qualifying, you wouldn’t worry about the fuel. We try to make it basically run out during qualifying, and that’s what a difference of six or seven pounds makes. I definitely think it’s an advantage and I’m pretty sure in due time you’ll have a rule change on that.”
IRL officials said last week they were not considering a change, which has the 5-foot-9 Wheldon and his fellow drivers fighting their own battle of the bulge.
“A lot of us have changed our training regimen for that,” he said. “I’m not lifting as much weight as I used to, and I’m running like a son of a gun.”
The stylish Wheldon certainly has the looks to become auto racing’s version of David Beckham, and he’ll get a taste of celebrity when he visits late-night host and rival owner David Letterman on June 6. Letterman is co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing – and Patrick’s boss.
“He’ll probably switch me to the Jay Leno show because I beat his girl,” Wheldon joked.
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