Patrick's celebrity a shift from Guthrie's fight

INDIANAPOLIS – Thirty-three drivers will take the green flag Sunday for the 89th Indianapolis 500, but the eyes of a nation will be focused on one. Danica Patrick has the best opportunity yet for a female driver to win at Indy, and she's taking an adoring public – and media – along for the 220-mph ride.

Women didn't always have it so good at The Brickyard. Janet Guthrie remembers a time when the cheers were jeers, when female drivers were treated as dangerous novelties, not celebrities.

Guthrie, now 67, has documented her experience of breaking Indy's unspoken gender barrier to become the first female qualifier at Indianapolis in a new autobiography, "A Life At Full Throttle," and she has taken a keen interest in Patrick's progress through the open-wheel racing ranks.

Given that nearly three decades have passed since Guthrie's historic qualifying run on May 22, 1977, one would expect female drivers to be a novelty no longer. But Patrick is only the third woman to qualify for the Indianapolis field in the 27 years since Guthrie did, joining Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher.

More significant, Danica is the first woman to earn an IndyCar drive with a topflight team like Rahal Letterman Racing.

Patrick's star already was rising before this May, but a series of sizzling practice laps and a spectacular run for the pole shot her into nationwide headlines. The outpouring of positive attention Patrick has received both from the public and from the media has been truly amazing.

It's also a far cry from the rough reception Guthrie was in for when she arrived at Indianapolis. What was Janet hearing?

"'Women can't do it.' 'Women don't have the strength.' 'Women don't have the endurance or the emotional stability and we're going to endanger our lives,' that was the drift," Guthrie recalled. "Most of the oval track drivers had never had the experience of running with a woman driver, and they were sure they weren't going to like it. That got calmed down within the course of the races that I ran in 1976. But in NASCAR, it took until May of '77 before I could walk through the garage area without guys looking at me squinty-eyed.

"The public, I think, needed to be convinced, too," she added. "So qualifying for the first time was really a major moment of my life."

It wasn't easy. There were more than 50 drivers vying for the 33 grid positions in those days, and Guthrie's 1976 ride wasn't up to the task of getting into the field. Undaunted, Guthrie and car owner Rolla Vollstedt returned to Indy in 1977, and Janet was the fastest second weekend qualifier.

Guthrie's presence in the field created a dilemma for then Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman, who didn't want to amend his traditional call of, "Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!"

"I could have cared less what they said at the start of the race as long as mine was one of the engines that started," Guthrie noted. "Tony Hulman, who that year gave the call for the last time before he died that winter, said he was going to go ahead and say 'Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!' After all, there was all that tradition, and he said the mechanics still start the engines.

"So Kay Bignotti [wife of legendary crew chief George Bignotti], when she heard that, came to me and said, 'We can't let Tony get away with that. I'll start your engine.' Kay did start my engine, and what Tony said was, 'In company with the first lady to qualify at Indianapolis, Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!' "

Racing drivers often say the only time they get any peace is when they are strapped into a car. That was certainly the case for Guthrie at the start of the 1977 race, and the frenzy accompanying her Indy debut was a mere fraction of what Patrick is experiencing.

"By that time, I had come to feel the 'first woman' thing as a responsibility," Guthrie said. "I think I took the heat. But it wasn't where I was coming from. I identified myself as a sports car driver making the transition to the ovals. I knew that the woman part didn't make a bit of difference, but that wasn't the general position."

After running a heavy stock car schedule in 1977, Guthrie returned to Indianapolis in 1978 as the owner of her own car. Racing with a broken wrist suffered in a stock car crash, she qualified with relative ease and finished ninth, still the best result at Indy for a female. But it also was Janet's second-to-last Indianapolis start – and the last one she finished – and her own driving career ended shortly thereafter.

More than a decade passed before St. James followed in Guthrie's wheel tracks at Indy, but macho attitudes still prevailed. Things changed somewhat by the time Sarah Fisher arrived on the Indy Racing League scene in the late '90s. With a little help from the IRL marketing machine, Fisher emerged as the league's "Most Popular Driver," and she enjoyed a modicum of success (a pole and a podium). But she was unable to remain competitive in the IndyCar Series, and this year, she slunk off to NASCAR's minor leagues.

Patrick was anointed as IndyCar's new poster girl before she even turned a lap in anger. She has the perfect combination of talent, beauty and outspokenness to thrive under the spotlight. The frenzy heated up when she qualified on the front row and finished fourth earlier this year in Japan, and since she arrived at Indianapolis, it has been all Danica, all the time.

For her part, Patrick is enjoying the attention but also has called it a double-edged sword. If she fails to succeed, she could face a backlash a male competitor wouldn't see.

Guthrie tends to look at the full spectrum, having been here before.

"I was a great supporter of Sarah's and still am," Guthrie said. "She had a pretty good background, and she had the ability. I don't believe the experience level is an issue for either one of them. I just don't think one should lose sight of Sarah Fisher's accomplishments in the furor over Danica.

"Danica is very talented and very determined, but as I always used to say back in the '70s, it's 75 percent car and 25 percent driver. For a driver to win races, you have to have it all. What Danica has that no other woman has had so far is top-notch equipment and a front-running team that is solidly behind her."

That combination has prompted Guthrie to go on record stating that she believes Danica will win the 89th running of the Indianapolis 500.

"I think she has a very good chance of winning the race," Janet said. "Everything she needs is there – the experience with the team, the backing of the team, the equipment, and of course her own talent and determination. So I believe she has as good a chance as anyone at winning the race and I think it's realistic for this year. You never know at Indianapolis. It's always a toss-up. The slightest little thing can go wrong and put you out of the running, but I think her chances are as good as anyone's."

Asked whether she thinks America is ready to accept a female winner of its most famous race, Guthrie responded, "Well, they may not have any choice!"

But she still clearly recalls the backlash that came with her initial success and hopes that today's up-and-coming female drivers can use it as a motivational tool.

"I remember all the letters to National Speed Sport News, all the fan mail back then, saying the fact that I could qualify and compete well at Indianapolis proved that Indy car racing was just for pantywaists and real racing fans should go back to sprint car racing where the real men were," Guthrie recalled with a chuckle. "Now, of course, we have Erin Crocker winning a race in the World Of Outlaws, the hairiest form of sprint car racing, so I guess they can't very well say that anymore, can they?

"It all depends on who gets the chance," she said. "There's lots of talent down there at the lower levels of the sport, where millions and millions of dollars are not the determining factor. Women seem to have a harder time finding sponsorship than men do. The fields remain full at every race, and what they are full of is male drivers sponsored by products purchased primarily by women. That doesn't make any sense to me.

"But I'm absolutely sure that we will see a woman win the Indianapolis 500, if not this year, then in the future. If it's not Danica, then it will be someone else, and similarly with the Daytona 500."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.