Women are not physically fit to operate automobiles."

— Cincinnati mayor Mark Breith, 1908.

A few thousand jokes died on Sunday afternoon.

Those jokes about women drivers.

The women got their poster girl (and so did a few men). Danica Patrick, a tiny 5-foot-2, 105-pound rookie, took on the men Sunday in the Indianapolis 500 — the machoest event in sports — and came within a few laps of winning the thing.

She might well have pulled it off if she hadn't had to conserve gas and made two rookie blunders, the kind that might reopen the door for more of those women-driver jokes. She had a fender bender and stalled the car, but at least she wasn't applying makeup in the rear-view mirror or fixing her hair at the time (she saved the latter for the post-race TV interview).

It was Sally Ride in space, Amelia Earhardt in the air, Annika Sorenstam on the fairway. But none of them went head to head, mano-a-womano, in the same way that Patrick did, bumping male rivals at 200 mph, mixing it up in heavy traffic and never backing down.

She finished in fourth place, after rallying from 16th place to take the lead late in the race.

Danica, the first woman ever to lead a lap at Indy (and only the fourth woman to qualify for the 89-year-old race), is for real, the anti-Kournikova. She could be a fixture at Indy (and by the way, they're going to have to do something about that initial command at Indy: "Gentlemen — and lady — start your engines.")

It's official now. Danica is the new rage. She's going to be the Maria Sharapova of auto racing, except Danica competes head to head against men while Sharapova and other female athletes compete against other women.

This will be a Danica America. Look for her face to start turning up everywhere. She's got the looks — she's already done the sexy photo shoots. She's even got the star name.

Danica. Will the last name be necessary?

Before the race, she said her performance at Indy could change motor sports forever. This is true. For one thing, not many of the men wear long flowing hair down their backs and pose in red bikinis lounging on a yellow car.

Danica wears nail polish at the end of the same fingers that put a death grip on the steering wheel for 800 left turns on Sunday. As owner Bobby Rahal told People magazine, "Danica shakes your hand and, crunch, it's like a truck driver. The exterior is nice and pretty — and underneath she is as tough as steel."

Danica has some self-marketing savvy, but Rahal says "She does not want to be the next Anna Kournikova.

That's not likely. The 23-year-old has skills that she has been honing since she was 16 while racing go-karts and her Mustang on the streets and race cars on the track. She's not only a female novelty on the racing scene, she's also the second youngest driver on the circuit.

Her arrival is perfectly timed with the recent resurgence of auto racing's popularity.

All did not go according to plan for the rookie. She stalled the car pulling out of a pit stop and cut off a rival car during a caution period when the cars in front of her slowed, knocking one car out of the race and sending another car spinning into the wall. That knocked off her own wing and dinged her nose cone.

Hold those jokes, please. Danica still managed to regain the lead with gutsy, aggressive driving. But, forced to conserve fuel to avoid what would have been a disastrous pit-stop timeout, she let her speed fall from 226 to 221 mph and surrendered the lead with just eight laps to go.

After being the center of attention all week in Indianapolis, Danica backed up the hype with her showing on the track. The hype included an appearance on the "Late Show" with David Letterman, who, along with Rahal, is co-owner of Danica's Rahal Letterman Team.

"Here I am, boss," she said as she made her entrance. With Sunday's showing, she essentially said, "Here I am, America."


E-mail: drob@desnews.com