Women drivers carving an IndyCar niche

Lyn St. James had just completed an otherwise uneventful day of practice before her debut Indianapolis 500 in 1992. Team owner Dick Simon approached her on pit road and made it noteworthy.

Just the second female to qualify for open-wheel racing's greatest spectacle, the former sports car racer had come to count on Simon for advice, not only mechanically, but in negotiating what was still at times a pressurized, over-scrutinized endeavor.

"So did you hear the scuttlebutt that was on pit lane?" Simon asked. "A.J. [Foyt] and you went into Turn 1 together and everybody decided if A.J. was willing to go into Turn 1 with you and thinks you're OK, then you're OK."

Foyt, a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and one of the most accomplished and unabashedly opinionated drivers in American racing history, had on that mundane lap vetted and certified the first female to qualify for the race in 13 years, just by treating her like anyone else.

"I didn't take that real seriously, but I don't think it was totally a joke," St. James recalls. "At the time, you hope people are paying attention to the right things."

That was never an issue for Janet Guthrie. A pilot and an engineer who passed first-round qualifications for NASA's Scientist-Astronaut program, Guthrie was the right person at the right time in 1977, speedway historian Donald Davidson said.

She established herself as a racer with a successful sports car career and eventually started in the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s. In 1977 she became the first female to enter and take laps in the Indy 500, and her ninth-place finish in 1978 stood as the gender record until Danica Patrick finished fourth in 2005 and third in 2009.

The initial reaction to Guthrie's arrival was pocked with bewilderment and negativity, Davidson said, but gradually ceded to acceptance. Female drivers have since become a rallying point in the IndyCar Series, with Sarah Fisher and Patrick combining to win "most popular driver" awards in nine of 15 seasons it was awarded. Second-year driver Simona de Silvestro is rapidly amassing her own following.

"People generally didn't know who she was," Davidson said of Guthrie. "I think some people didn't know what to think. ... This was a lady, an educated lady, who was a scientist, and I think the drivers didn't know what to really think at first."

Guthrie did not return to Indianapolis after 1979, and Desire Wilson, a former Formula One driver, failed to qualify in 1982, leaving a vacuum. St. James arrived in 1992 as a familiar commodity from the sports car series that often competed on the same weekends with IndyCar. She didn't have to blaze new trails as much as tamp out some lingering prejudices, she said.

"It was the officials and sort of sanctioning body people, they still had a lot of people who only did Indy," she said. "There was a lot of tradition, a lot of rough edges around attitudes that were here when Janet was here that were not particularly embracing the idea yet. And yet, over the month of May, I think I converted them."

While the National Hot Rod Association boasts a sizable female contingent, open-wheel racing has surged ahead of it and NASCAR, in terms of female participation at the highest sanctioned levels. Guthrie and Shawna Robinson are the only females to have raced in the Daytona 500, and Guthrie came closest to a full Sprint Cup season with 19 starts in 1977. Seven women have raced in the Indy 500; Pippa Mann qualified Sunday and will be the eighth. The reasons for open-wheel racing's attractiveness to females are cultural, demographic and geographic.

Of the four females who qualified for this 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, tying the record set last year, Patrick (Illinois) is from the Midwest; de Silvestro (Switzerland) and Mann (England) are from Europe; and Ana Beatriz (Brazil) is from Latin America, all of which are steeped in open-wheel culture above all other forms of racing. Guthrie and St. James, too, were from the Midwest, Wilson from South Africa and former IndyCar racer Milka Duno from Venezuela.

But that didn't make home a nurturing environment, Beatriz said.

"I think it is more a cultural thing," she said. "Where I am from in Brazil, a very macho country, it was very tough for me to grow up as a driver there. No other guy would want to lose to me. They would kick me out of the track, so I had to really be aggressive sometimes and break barriers. Over there it was really tough.

"As soon as I came to America, I felt such a different environment; I guess because Danica was doing something here and we had Sarah and more history in women racing. Drivers felt more used to women racing and it wasn't a big deal."

Greater acceptance became possible, St. James said, with a larger roster of female drivers in the IndyCar series. And with their results. Fisher, an immensely popular driver who has now become a full-time IndyCar owner, made her first Indianapolis start in 2000, coinciding with St. James' seventh and last appearance. Fisher, the youngest female starter at Indy (19), became the first female in open-wheel history to finish in the top three of a race and to win a pole.

"I think it's not as scrutinized [now] because there have been women in open-wheel doing very positive things, winning poles, running up front, winning a race for the last 10 years. It's the power of performance," Fisher said. "When you get into a sport, any sport, or you get into a business like Anne Stevens at Ford and do exceptionally well, everybody wants to cheer that on, because really, females are sort of the underdog. Simona was the underdog and it's her sophomore year, so we want to see her perform well. She has her own expectations, and when something good happens, that's a great thing to cheer for."

Patrick, who never has embraced role model status for her gender, became a national sensation when she qualified a record fourth as a rookie in 2005 and then led 19 laps of the race, the first woman to do so in the 500. She was the first and only woman to win a major open-wheel race, the 2008 Indy Japan 300.

Even as they pursue individual goals, the current group of female drivers is too often considered one homogenous bloc. Mann was inspired by Fisher and de Silvestro by Patrick, but many of them view Ayrton Senna -- the Brazilian man widely regarded as one of the greatest open-wheel drivers of all time -- as their role model. They are cordial with each other, but none considers the other a good friend. They all assert that further progress they achieve for females will be best accomplished by what they do on the track. They want to be winning race car drivers and will take the gender label as an aside.

"As long as they're in the minority, it'll still be a story, I'm sure," Guthrie said, "like Jackie Robinson was a story all his life. All of us simply want to be considered drivers."

They're getting there. Fast.

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