Race day at the Indianapolis 500 this year could have a new name — ladies’ day.
Five female drivers attempted (four made it) to make the field for the 94th Indianapolis 500 — the most since the race began 99 years ago. At the top of the list is the most visible driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Danica Patrick, along with the only female owner-driver in the sport — Sarah Fisher. Venezuela’s Milka Duno tried to qualify for her fourth Indy 500, but missed the field.
There are two talented rookie female drivers attempting to make the race, including Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland and Ana Beatriz of Brazil.
There is a very real possibility that the record of three females in one Indy 500 will be broken this year and that shows how far this sport has come since Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977.
“Frankly, I thought it would take longer than this,” Guthrie said. “I thought it would take two generations and it only seems to have taken one. I’m delighted because from what I have seen of Ana Beatriz she is very, very capable. I’m very happy for Simona de Silvestro also. I have always been very, very fond of Sarah Fisher, so this is really good news.”
Guthrie was a successful sports-car racer throughout her career and serves as a pioneer in racing. She started 29th and finished 26th in the Bryant Heating & Cooling Special and made history in the process. She fared even better in 1978, driving the Texas Star from 15th to a ninth-place finish. She was an owner-driver in her final Indy 500 in 1979 with a 14th-place start and a 34th-place finish in a year when 35 cars were allowed to take the green flag.
Lyn St. James followed her path to the Indy 500, competing from 1992 to 2000. Fisher was a rookie in St. James’s final Indy 500 and is in her third season as an owner-driver.
Patrick became the first female to lead laps in the Indianapolis 500 during her rookie campaign in 2005 and finished fourth. Her third-place finish in last year’s 500 is the highest finish by a woman.
Duno has competed in the last three Indy 500s with a best finish of 19th in 2008.
De Silvestro and Beatriz became the latest women to make the Indy 500.
“I think it is pretty cool,” de Silvestro said. “I have never raced against other girl drivers except for this year. It’s going to be great to be at the Indianapolis 500 with everybody else. For me it’s really important to beat everybody else on the track, so it’s going to be great for the fans that there may be five female drivers in this year’s race.
“For me, ovals are pretty new. Kansas was my first race on an oval. I can’t really expect that much about the Indy 500. It’s going to be great to be a part of it. We have to do our best. We have to work up to it and get comfortable on the ovals and see how we end up.”
De Silvestro has gotten advice from the other drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series field, including one of the three female veterans.
“Sarah Fisher has been helpful on the ovals, but the other drivers have been pretty helpful, too, and pretty open,” de Silvestro said.
Fisher sees tremendous potential in de Silvestro and Beatriz, and believes they can become competitive IndyCar drivers.
“I really like Simona a lot,” Fisher said. “She is a very humble person and I think at Indy she will have a lot of people in her ear (to) help her which is good. I hope she can sort through the meaningful stuff and contribute that to her on-track. I think she has done an incredible job under pressure and has done well so far. I have watched Ana quite a bit in the Indy Lights Series, keeping an eye on her as I do a lot of drivers. She did a good job on the ovals there. It’s our job as a series to make that a successful stepping-stone. We’ll see how it goes. She is a good representative of the drivers that come from that series.
“Indy is tough. It’s just a really tough month to get through for anybody — man, woman, rookie, whatever.”
Fisher has taken the next step in her IndyCar career by becoming a team owner so she can remain involved in the sport long after her driving days are over. But as part of history at this year’s race she admits it is a bit stunning.
“Honestly, while I was still driving, no, I didn’t think there would be five females at Indy in the same race,” Fisher said. “I think it’s great. The Speedway, the Indy 500 is a very tough place to just drop in as a rookie and this year will be challenging for all of us. I hope everybody does well.
“As long as the five gals all have the ability to be there competitively, that is the goal. In the IndyCar Series we want to compete with the best drivers in the world. As long as they are competitive that is fantastic and I’ll support it 100 percent.”
Guthrie admits out of the five drivers she admires Fisher the most.
“I’m really fond of Sarah,” Guthrie said. “She is a terrific person and deserves all the popularity she has. She certainly has her hands full as an owner-driver and I keep my fingers crossed for her all the time.”
Fisher has benefited from those who drove before her and helped make it acceptable for a female to race in the male-dominated world of auto racing.
“Both Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James are having a bigger impact now than when I first started because I was 19 and stubborn,” Fisher said. “It was hard for me because I hadn’t really grown up yet to take a step back and look at it big picture. Now I’m able to share what I do with both Janet and Lyn. Janet wrote the forward to my book and Lyn took part in it, too. They have both been really good to bounce off with ideas and share where my business is going. They’ve learned a lot in racing. I like Janet. She was there as the first when I was starting to come out of my shell, but both have been a big help.”