While I was doing some surfing (those who know me a little well know I’ve never been to a beach surfing. My surfing usually comes from a comfortable chair.) I came across a news story saying that for the second time in the past three years, you won’t be There is a woman competing in the Indy 500.
This caught my attention. While I knew that quite a few women had competed in Indy, I didn’t realize that the dearth of competition would rate the mention in a news account.
I read it and learned that not only did women compete well in the old Memorial Day weekend race, but that there were up to four women on the track at the same time competing against the men.
I’m not a fan of motorsports, so my lack of knowledge about the sport is not surprising. But I pride myself on knowing so little about as many sports as possible, and it was frustrating for me to admit that I had so much to learn about female Indy Car drivers.
I am familiar with two women who raced in Indy – Janet Guthrie and Danica Patrick. Guthrie was the first, and Patrick was known for her life off the track as much as she was driving a race car.
I was living in Illinois when Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the 500. My home base was just 100 miles from the old brick yard in Indianapolis and I had a friend who was a big race fanatic. He kept hinting that he’d take me to see the Indy 500. When Memorial Day passed and we didn’t make the trip, he’d always say, “We’ll do that next year.” As he rarely missed the race himself, I could only guess that in his rush to get ready to take off, he forgot his promise to me. I kept reminding myself that if I really wanted to go, I could have done the trip on my own.
Although my boyfriend forgot, he usually stopped by my workstation to talk about sports and was the one to tell me about Janet Guthrie. “What is the world coming to?” His question was when he brought up the topic of women’s racing. Today he will be identified as a misogynist. Then his thinking was typical of many ordinary males.
Guthrie made his indie debut in 1977, near the end of my years in Illinois. She had attempted entry in 1976 but had failed to qualify. Her Indy career was relatively short and lasted three races. She took 29th place in 1977, having engine problems. Her ninth place came while driving with a broken wrist two days before the race while playing tennis. Some drivers said the reason she didn’t qualify in 1976 was because of her gender discrimination. Racing legend AJ Foyt was angered by hearing about discrimination and loaned her one of his cars. While driving, she proved that she could qualify if all things being equal. This was the last time I failed to qualify for the race.
Guthrie was also the first woman to compete in NASCAR’s Daytona 500. The discrimination may have caused an early end to her Indy career, as she failed to secure sponsorship for the event in 1980 and thus retired.
Danica Patrick became a big name in racing in 2005 when she passed the Indy 500 driving test. She competed in six races in Indianapolis and finished third in 2009, the highest score of any female driver. There is no doubt that Patrick is a good driver, but her good looks have made her a favorite among those who were not interested in motorsports otherwise. Paparazzi teases her at every move, and has been a frequent magazine cover model, appearing on Sports Illustrated, FHM, TV Guide, and ESPN: The Magazine. People magazine named her one of the most beautiful people in the world in 2006 and the following year, she was voted the sexiest athlete on Victoria’s Secret’s What is Sexy list. In a television interview, she objected to her classification as a sex symbol. “People don’t know how to describe women beautifully,” she said. “Would you call Blake Griffin a sex symbol because he was on the cover of Men’s Health with his shirt off?”
Patrick was one of the best things to hit the male-dominated world of motorsports in the opinion of some. Others criticized it. Kyle Beattie described her as a marketing machine, and his father Richard pointed out that she was just a regular driver despite all the publicity she received.
Football fans who had never seen the action of the race became aware of Patrick when she started dating Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2018. And that romance ended in 2020.
The women with the most races in Indy are Lynn St. James and Sarah Fisher, both of whom have nine races on their résumés. St. James was the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award, which she received in 1992 while simultaneously taking home the award for being the oldest rookie of the year (she was 45 years old). Her best result was 11 and her last appearance was in 2000. Like most other women who have raced in Indy, she has also led in NASCAR races. She was the first woman to reach over 200 mph on a racetrack. She has driven a variety of cars including Aston Martin, Porsche, Ferrari and Mazda, but for most of her NASCAR career, she has driven a Ford Mustang. She was driving a Ford Thunderbird when she broke the women’s closed track record with 227.32 mph. I get nervous when the speedometer exceeds the highway speed limit.
Sarah Fisher first raced in Indy in 2000. Although she competed in nine races, her best result was 17th. Her family had a racing background and she started competing at the age of five when her parents entered her in a middle quarter race. Moving on to karting, she won three World Karting Championships and then progressed to speed car racing. Like other female drivers, she had care issues and eventually retired in 2010. She went into racing car ownership after retirement. Interesting note – her husband, Andy O’Gara, had her left front tire changer. They married in 2007 and have two children.
Peppa Man from the UK was in eight Indy 500s (same as Patrick’s). Her best result was 29, which she achieved in 2015 and 2016. She hasn’t raced Memorial Day Weekend since 2019. Besides a fairly successful racing career, she is best known for her work in support of breast cancer research. Her initial efforts included a partnership with Susan G. Komen where racing fans could donate for every lap Man completed in May 2014. She completed 484 laps and helped raise more than $50,000 for cancer research. She has been active in that campaign in the ensuing years.
Simona de Silvestro has run in six Indy 500s. She is a Swiss-Italian driver who currently works for Porsche as a factory driver. Her best result was 14 and her last Indy race was in 2013. She has been described as ‘maybe the future of women drivers’.
As a closing note, only two women have attempted to qualify for the Brickyard 400 version at NASCAR, which is also running in Indianapolis. In 2001, Shauna Robinson tried to qualify but failed. Danica Patrick became the first woman to qualify for the 400 which she did in 2013.
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