NBC News with Brian Williams
By Kevin Tibbles Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/26/2005 6:38:13 PM ET 2005-05-26T22:38:13

Two hundred twenty-seven miles per hour is good enough to start fourth in this year’s Indianapolis 500. Not bad for a rookie. And when you're this rookie, it gets you noticed.

Danica Patrick is 23 years old, stands five-foot-one and weighs maybe a 100 pounds soaking wet. She’s petite, yes, but be prepared if you shake her hand.

“My father told me when I was very young to shake someone's hand like you mean it,” says Patrick. “So me, being the obedient daughter, I did.”

She wants to put her father's "like you mean it" advice to good use behind the wheel on Sunday, in front of 400,000 spectators, hoping to become the first woman to cross the finish line in first place.

Behind the wheel from the age of 10, Patrick is really out to a country mile lead. Her climb from the go-kart to the Indy car has been swift and meticulous.

“She's here to be a race car driver and, if she wins, she won’t jump up and down,” says Beverly Patrick, Danica’s mother. “If she gets second, she'll be ticked off.  And that is just the way it is.”

The feisty spark plug quickly caught team co-owner and former Indy champ Bobby Rahal's attention.

“It's like ‘I'm going to show you. Come and take a shot at me.  I'm going to show you’ and you don't see that in all drivers,” says Rahal.

What you also don't see is a young woman as comfortable in front of the camera as behind the wheel.

“I guess I had this tough guy, you know, soft girl image my whole life,” sayd Patrick. “So maybe I still have it.”

But around a car is where those piercing eyes are most at home.

Even though Patrick is under intense pressure to boost popularity in a sport that's sputtered of late behind NASCAR and to succeed as only the 4th woman to race Indy.

“When any woman does well in any form of racing, it has a positive ripple effect to all women in racing,” says former driver Lyn St. James. “And conversely when things don't go well, it also has a ripple effect.”

“I think it's very cool that just being myself is enough to be a role model,” says Patrick. “That says a lot for the way I was brought up.”

Think Indy's going “powderpuff”? Just watch Danica Patrick come Sunday, when she shakes hands with 650 horsepower

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