05/30/2005 AT 9:00 AM ET
Danica Patrick didn t pull into the victory lane at Sunday s Indianapolis 500, but she did speed her way into the history books by placing fourth, the highest ever for a woman driver in the 89-year history of the race.
And for a fleeting moment the 23-year-old brunette with the model looks held the lead, causing some 300,000 fans to stand and cheer in the stands.
What held her back was the need to conserve fuel after skipping a pit stop. That miscalculation cost her the race, leaving the victory to Englishman Dan Wheldon, followed by Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta.
“Gosh, did I make mistakes,” the 5 2”, 100-lb. Patrick told reporters after the race. “I can’t believe my car wasn’t completely demolished because I got hit like twice. I spun around and can’t believe I kept the engine running.”
Still, Patrick set records: On Lap 56 of the scheduled 200, she took the lead and became the 54th driver to lead the Indy in a first start (and the first woman ever to lead the competition); she bettered the previous best finish by a woman (ninth) set by Janet Guthrie in 1978.
In the pits, Patrick’s mother Bev buried her face in her hands at the realization her daughter wouldn’t win the Indy 500 in her initial attempt. “To finish first would have been awesome, but she’ll be here many more times,” Bev said. “She’ll get it eventually.”
Late Show host David Letterman, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing (which backed Patrick), also took in the race from the pits. Last year Letterman’s team won the 500 with Buddy Rice, and the TV star is looking to a bright future with Patrick (whom he hugged after the race).
“I don’t know how she did it,” said Letterman, suggesting that his driver is experienced and wise beyond her years. “Boy, she’s not 23 years old. She’s no kid. I don’t know how you have all that misfortune befall you and still come back to almost win the race.”
At the end of the day, Patrick left the infield holding hands with her fianc , Paul Hospenthal, 39, a physical therapist she met while seeking treatment for a hip injury from a yoga session. The couple will reportedly marry on Nov. 19.