ST. PETERSBURG — This week, hordes of reporters will cluster around Shannon McIntosh. Thousands of eyes will lock on her while she drives. Sound-bite seekers will trail her afterward.
"I have to check my calendar each day to know what I'm doing," McIntosh said. "I know I've got a lot of interviews lined up all this week. It can be tough at times juggling all the media attention and getting practice time in and getting ready for the races."
At 22, McIntosh, who lives in St. Petersburg, embodies IndyCar's future. She already is a crossover star, an MTV breakout figure who was a finalist to be on the October 2011 cover of the magazine Seventeen.
McIntosh is entering her second year in IndyCar's developmental USF2000 series, which has races Saturday and Sunday during the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend. Last year, she was the only female driver in the series and the only American woman competing in IndyCar's developmental pipeline.
And now that Danica Patrick has moved to NASCAR, McIntosh could fill the void as the new face of open-wheel female drivers in America.
"The comparisons to Danica are something I take with a grain of salt," McIntosh said. "I don't want to be the next Danica Patrick. I want to be the first Shannon McIntosh. I want to be my own person and not try to emulate someone else."
McIntosh already has had a crash course in the inner workings of the star-making machine. Much like the sport's current crop of rising stars, she first slid behind a wheel and tore around a track years before she ever attended driver's ed.
She also had to learn to become somewhat of a traveling saleswoman, knocking on doors in search of a chance to drive for deep-pocketed owners.
She amassed dozens of victories in quarter midgets and USAC Midgets before making the move to formula-style cars last year when she landed a ride with Cape Motorsports, which is based in St. Petersburg.
It was a difficult transition. McIntosh had one top-five finish during the season.
"It wasn't the best season for me," McIntosh said. "Actually, it was the worst. But I learned a lot going from midget to road races. For me, I'm trying learn every aspect and know all the ins and outs of racing in this series. It's all about moving forward."
In the offseason, she signed with Pabst Racing Services and worked with driving coach Michael Zimicki, who has helped Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"Shannon has somewhat of a different background," Zimicki said. "Most drivers start in go-carts, progress and make their way into formula. Shannon started in small oval tracks and it's built in into her brain and reflexes to drive a midget.
"But she is making huge strides. Shannon is above all else a hard worker and quick learner. Driving is not just about pulling the throttle down and feeling your way around. There are a lot more subtleties. She has to push a few reset buttons. But she knows what she needs to do."
McIntosh said her biggest adjustment is learning how to navigate the tight turns in road races.
"I've never really had a dedicated driving coach before and it has helped adjust to a different style of racing," McIntosh said. "All the data was showing that I was overdriving corners. Before, I could be more aggressive, but I can't do that now."
McIntosh will continue to map out a strategy during practice sessions this week. Of course, she also has to squeeze in interviews and prepare to be the host for the downtown Grand Prix after party Sunday at Push that will benefit the Dan Wheldon Family Trust.
"It's always a little more hectic coming back to my home track," McIntosh said. "But it's also an honor. In an ideal world I would just be able to drive and not worry about anything else. But media attention and interviews helps me prepare for what will happen if I get to IndyCar."