The speed world has a new demon. At this year's Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick, 23, became the first woman to hold a lead in the race. Winner Dan Wheldon passed her with six laps to go, and she ended up placing fourth. But TV ratings soared, and she has injected new life into the struggling IndyCar circuit. Patrick spoke to TIME'S Sean Gregory from her Phoenix, Ariz., home.
IS YOUR PHONE RINGING OFF THE HOOK NOW WITH ENDORSEMENT OFFERS?
My phone isn't, but I bet Brent's is [Brent Maurer is her press rep]. All I know is that we're going to do our best to make sure that I'm not so distracted that I can't do my job, which is to drive a race car. Because nobody is going to want to do a story if I don't do well. We all know the important parts here.
YOU WOUND UP FOURTH IN THE INDY 500 AND STILL MADE THE COVER OF SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. DO YOU FIND ALL THIS ATTENTION A BIT AWKWARD?
What I've done--forget gender--is still a great thing. I almost won the pole the last two races. I have led the last two races, and I've never really done any oval racing before. Then there's the fact that the ratings went up so high, which helps all the other teams as well. We've gotten some interest from so many areas that haven't been interested in Indy cars before. So I think that I'm deserving of good things. I'm not going to say exactly what I think I deserve because realistically I'm just driving a car and doing what I love to do.
HAS IT BEEN HARD TO BREAK INTO RACING'S BOYS' CLUB?
I've always been respected, within reason, because of everything I've done. The real defining moment for me was after a practice during the first week at Indy when I was faster than everybody. [Tony] Kanaan and [Dario] Franchitti drove by in a golf cart and told me, "Good job." You can just tell that they were sincere. They respected me completely as a driver, and they know that I'm somebody they need to beat.
YOU POSED FOR FHM MAGAZINE IN A SKIMPY BLACK LEATHER OUTFIT. ANY REGRETS ABOUT THAT?
Not at all. It was an opportunity to find sponsorship, and it opened lots of doors. You have to do what you have to do, within reason and in respect to yourself, but I don't feel one bit uncomfortable with it. I look at the pictures and I think, The girls are pretty. I had fun.
HAS PLAYBOY CALLED?
Um, yeah, I think they have. I would never do that. It's just [a matter of] respecting myself.
DRIVER ROBBY GORDON HAS SAID HE WOULDN'T RACE AGAINST YOU BECAUSE YOU'RE SO MUCH LIGHTER THAN THE OTHER DRIVERS, GIVING YOU AN ADVANTAGE. WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?
I don't really have a reaction. It's just something else to cause a stir in the media. You know, Buddy Rice won with the heaviest car last year at Indy. So I'm not sure it really matters that much.
YOUR FIANCE IS A PHYSICAL THERAPIST YOU MET AFTER YOU HURT YOUR HIP DOING YOGA. YOU DRIVE OVER 200 M.P.H. FOR A LIVING, BUT GET HURT DOING YOGA?
I was trying to compete with everybody on TV at 6 a.m., and I was still sleeping. So were my muscles.
WITH YOUR LONG HAIR TUCKED UNDERNEATH THAT RACING HELMET, HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH HELMET HEAD?