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Open-wheel eye opener Danica Patrick headlines IRL's debut at the Glen

Danica Patrick was asked if after all the attention she's received this year, after all the interviews and the questions and appearances -- not to mention 17 races over eight months -- if the end of the Indy Racing League's season would bring about some sense of relief.

She talked about how it has been a busy and exciting season, and that she is looking forward to a break.

Then she ended her response with, "I'm excited to get married."

That is not your ordinary race car driver response, but Patrick is obviously not your ordinary race car driver. And this has not been your ordinary year, with gender benders and fender benders playing out in each race. Patrick became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, won three poles and is on her way to becoming the IRL's Rookie of the Year. If question No. 1 at each race is "Who won?", question No. 1A is "Where's Danica?"

So it sure is a great year for Watkins Glen International to welcome back open-wheel racing. The Glen hosts the inaugural Watkins Glen Indy Grand Prix this weekend, the first open-wheel race held at the road course at the southern tip of Seneca Lake since 1981. Racing in Watkins Glen dates to 1948, and the track hosted Formula One and Indy Car events in the 1960s and '70s.

"I think she has brought a lot of interest into the league from basically the non-racing fan and the people that might not be familiar with the IRL -- they've been checking out the races to see what's going on," said Craig Rust, president of Watkins Glen International. "But what we're also finding for this inaugural race is that a lot of the fans are familiar with open wheel and that it's something that has been sought after for many years up here."

Still, the Glen had an idea of what its open-wheel event would be about when it put Patrick on a promotional poster celebrating the opening of the track's ticket sales in February. The track -- whose marquee event since open wheel's departure has been the NASCAR Nextel Cup's annual visit since 1986 -- put her on the poster with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I think a lot of the attention that Danica is receiving now, it started with Indianapolis (where Patrick finished fourth)," said Rust, who anticipates good ticket sales for this weekend, but said he doesn't expect the crowds of 100,000 that attend the NASCAR events. "If it's any sense of good marketers we are, back in February we did put Danica on the poster to kick off ticket sales. We knew there would be some interest there, and we heard she was very talented as well. But obviously we didn't expect the attention to the degree that it has happened."

That attention some have dubbed "Danicamania" increases today. Just turn on your TV. If you missed her schmoozing with her team's co-owner David Letterman on "The Late Show" Tuesday night, today viewers will wake up to Patrick on "Today" on NBC and "Cold Pizza" on ESPN2, while she'll also be the centerpiece of an IRL news conference in New York City and make an appearance on another ESPN program.

Another test of her fame might come when you do a Web search for "Danica Patrick wedding," and you can find out just about everything about the 23-year-old's big day (Nov. 19 in Arizona to Paul Hospenthal) -- even the ring size -- on a page titled "celebrity relationships."

That kind of attention for a driver described on the home page of her own Web site as an "attractive, 5-foot-1, 100-pound woman" has rankled some other IRL drivers this season. Earlier this season there was a spat involving separate autograph lines while Dan Wheldon, who has all but clinched this year's series title, donned a T-shirt reading "I actually won the Indy 500."

"I think everybody takes it different ways," said Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 champion and a teammate of Patrick's at Rahal Letterman Racing. "Any time you bring more people in to watch racing and have more exposure to sponsors that's always a bonus. There are pros and cons, but there are still more people watching us than before."

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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