INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Four of the Indy Racing League’s top drivers stayed away from a recent autograph session because rookie sensation Danica Patrick was allegedly getting special treatment.

But it’s tough to argue that she shouldn’t be.

Race organizers almost certainly wouldn’t have had to hand out wristbands to limit the autograph line to 300 people for Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti or Bryan Herta – the Andretti Green Racing drivers who skipped the autograph session. And none of the those drivers has had Sports Illustrated or TV Guide clamoring to put them on the cover.

The first female race driver to capture the imagination of the American public is getting plenty of attention, and it appears she deserves it.

“We didn’t want things to get out of hand,” said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, who was the first promoter to put Patrick’s face on a billboard advertising the race, and the first to set up a special line to get her autograph.

Texas held the first IRL race after Patrick gained international notoriety by starting and finishing fourth in the Indianapolis 500 – both firsts for a woman.

She also became the first female to lead the big race and very nearly won it, slowing while running low on fuel after leading with only eight laps remaining.

By the time Patrick got to Texas for the next race, two weeks later, the hype surrounding her was in full swing. She had appeared on the cover of SI, been interviewed on just about every major TV talk show and was suddenly a celebrity.

Indy winner Wheldon wore a T-shirt at Texas that said: “Really, I won the Indianapolis 500.”

Her Rahal Letterman Racing teammates, Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira, wore T-shirts reading: “Danica’s teammate” and “Danica’s other teammate.”

All in good fun? It seemed that way at the time.

But, even as the first-year driver stumbled a bit, failing to contend for the win that everybody seemed to expect from her following her Indy success, her star continued to rise.

When organizers of the Milwaukee race last month followed the Texas lead, handing out wristbands and setting up a special line for a table of drivers that included Patrick, the AGR drivers blew off the long-scheduled session and went instead to their merchandise trailers to sign autographs.

The boycott resulted in the team being fined an unspecified amount by the IRL, and all the drivers showed up for their scheduled autograph session last week at Michigan.

Kevin Savoree, who co-owns the AGR team with Michael Andretti and Kim Green, said the team told the IRL at Texas they were not pleased by the two-line arrangement at the autograph session. He said they told the drivers to pull out at Milwaukee when a similar setup was used.

“It’s been discussed with the IRL and we’re all in agreement on how things need to be handled in the future,” Savoree said.

“It had nothing to do with Danica,” Andretti said after the Michigan autograph session. “I’m one of Danica’s biggest fans, to be honest with you. But for her sake and everybody’s sake, she needs to be a part of it, and not segregated from it. That’s what has been done. It’s back to normal.”

Wheldon, who has won four races this season and is leading the points, has shown flashes of resentment at the attention given to Patrick, who is 11th in the standings and the leading rookie. But he said missing the autograph session was nothing personal.

“I’m assuming, as an Andretti Green driver, that I will be there,” he said. “But obviously, any time that your boss either tells you yes’ or no’, you have to respect their decision.”

He likened the situation to Michelin pulling its drivers out of the U.S. Grand Prix in June at Indianapolis because of a tire problem the company considered dangerous, leaving only six Bridgestone drivers to race.

“I’m sure a lot of them wanted to race,” Wheldon said. “In fact, a guy I know, Kimi Raikkonen, he was desperate (to race). But, when your boss tells you no,’ you’re an employee of that particular team, and you have to listen to what they say.”

And Wheldon insisted he believes Patrick is good for the IndyCar Series.

“I think she’s brought a lot more fans to the racetracks, filled those grandstands more and more,” Wheldon said. “There’s not often races we go to now where you can actually see seats left open. And I think she’s handled it very, very well. I give her lots of credit and love having her around.

“She’s better than any other female I’ve seen. I’ve seen other championships trying to hype up their female driver now. I guarantee you, you could put any female against Danica, and Danica would blow them away. That’s what’s very special about her. She’s very determined.”

IRL spokesman John Griffin said there were “some hurt feelings over what seemed to not be a level playing field for all the drivers,” but that the issue over the drivers missing the autograph session in Milwaukee “is over and done.”

Griffin said the IRL tries to promote all of its drivers and went into the 2005 season with seven top drivers as its marketing focus.

“Every race, we go into, we focus on one or two drivers,” he said. “Of course, we love what Danica is doing for the IRL and racing in general. And she is certainly a big part of the promotion of the upcoming races.

“We race next week at Kentucky Speedway, which usually puts up three billboards around the areas. This year, they’ve put up 15 billboards, all with Danica’s image.”

Hopefully, nobody will be offended.

AP-ES-08-04-05 1623EDT

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