Danica Patrick Phenomenon Facing Test With New Book, Return to Indy 500

The Danica Patrick phenomenon will come full circle over the next few weeks as America's Princess of Speed returns to the track where her still-growing legend was born.

That track is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of course, and Danica enters the Month of May 2006 as arguably the biggest draw on offer out at 16th and Georgetown.

Patrick warmed up for her return to The Brickyard and the Indianapolis 500 on May 28, with a week-long national tour promoting her new book "Danica: Crossing the Line." And judging by the 200-strong crowd that greeted her at a northside Indianapolis branch of Borders Books on Monday night, "Danica-mania" isn't going away any time soon.

Most of them didn't look like traditional race fans, to the delight of those marketing types who believe the best way to re-grow open-wheel racing is to cultivate new fans rather than activate old ones. There were lots of kids and their parents, many of them decked out in Danica gear; young men shyly captured her image on cell phones and digital cameras and a small group of media waited patiently for a few minutes with the petite star when she was done signing autographs.

An Appeal Beyond the Racetrack

As usual, Danica's whole day was a family affair. She was accompanied to the signing by her mom and dad (Bev and TJ) and husband, Paul Hospenthal. The group had just come from dinner after helping Danica's younger sister, Brooke, move into a new apartment.

In the book, Patrick talks a lot about the unusually strong bond she shares with her family and it's clearly obvious in the flesh. Those revelations, along with an extremely candid description of the difficult years she spent in England trying to build her open-wheel road racing career, are the best aspects of "Crossing the Line."

For the most part, Patrick's personality shines through the pages of the book, easily recognizable to those who have spent time with her or followed her career closely. What lets the volume down is the contribution of Morton, who did a sloppy job researching the history of women in racing among other factual errors. All of them could have been easily caught ahead of time had anyone with a modicum of knowledge about racing been allowed to proofread the book.

But remember what the marketing man said: Danica's appeal extends beyond the walls and guardrails that surround a racetrack. The fans who showed up at Borders, or the ones who line up to buy T-shirts and autographed photos at her trackside merchandise stands, really don't give a hoot about what the best result was for a female driver in Formula 1, or how Stirling Moss or Tomas Enge spell their names. Crossing the Line won't appeal to cynical old gearheads, but it does a nice job of revealing a personal side of Danica to her growing legion of fans.

'Danica-mania' Here to Stay

Professionally, this month of May is an important test for Danica. Her breakout 2005 performance (a fourth place finish, including 19 laps led) is a high standard to live up to, and TJ Patrick admits that his daughter is worried that Rahal Letterman Racing's Panoz chassis won't measure up to the Dallara favored by every other team.

If it is unrealistic to think that Patrick can repeat her show-stealing efforts of a year ago, consider the improvement she has generally shown so far this year. Although she did not race in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, she qualified third, up from ninth a year ago. She was also much more competitive on the St. Petersburg street course, but unable to match her strong 2005 run to fourth place in Japan.

So the potential is clearly there for Danica to do even better than last year at Indy. The question is whether she will be able to rise above the intense pressure of being in the Speedway's spotlight from the start of the month to the end -- especially over the final 500 miles.

Some observers believe that I am one of Patrick's critics, but I think it's more fair to say that I have been critical of the attention the mainstream media has lavished upon a driver whose last race win came in a Pro Celebrity event some 49 months ago.

But seeing as "Danica-mania" seems to have some staying power, I've decided to make use of a piece of good advice she dispenses in Crossing the Line for when dealing with something that is odd, quirky or different.

Just embrace it.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com