•Training wheels: Go-karts, which she tried because her younger sister Brooke wanted to race them. Parents Bev and TJ—who met on a blind date at a snowmobile race—made Danica's competitions a family affair. Says Patrick: "Family support was what kept it all going."

•Fast track: At 16, Patrick moved to London to race on the Formula Vauxhall circuit. "It's the equivalent of automotive gang warfare," says Bobby Rahal, the Indy champ who was so impressed by her driving there that in June '02 he signed her to the high-octane team he co-owns with David Letterman. "She's a tough kid."

•Secret weapon: Her intuition, says Patrick. "When we're going 200-plus mph, I can see things happening and have time to react to them. I think that is a special gift."

•Idling: Enjoys life in the slow lane in Scottsdale, Ariz., with fiancé Paul Hospenthal, 39, a physical therapist and personal trainer. "She's kind of a TV junkie," Hospenthal says of Patrick, who also enjoys barbecuing and working out (see box). "But you won't see her watching much racing."

•Caution flag: Don't be fooled by the pink nail polish. "Danica shakes your hand and, crunch, it's like a truck driver," says Rahal. "That's the yin and yang of Danica. The exterior is nice and pretty—and underneath she is as tough as steel."