From Guthrie to Patrick, women have made progress at Indy 500

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Danica Patrick knocked that door off its hinges when she became the first female to lead the race during her rookie season in 2005.

In the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, the impact of female drivers will be evident when, for the second year in a row, there will be four women in the 33-car field. They include Patrick, talented second-year drivers Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland and Ana Beatriz of Brazil. Rookie Pippa Mann of England is the fourth of the fast females who will take the green flag on Sunday.

It shows how far this sport has come since Guthrie's Indy run and underlines the significance female drivers have played throughout the race's history.

"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 what I have seen of Ana Beatriz, she is very, very capable. I'm very happy for Simona de Silvestro also."

Guthrie was a successful sports car racer throughout her career. She started 29th and finished 26th in the Bryant Heating & Cooling Special. She fared even better in 1978, driving the Texas Star to 15th on the grid and 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 the 35-car field.

Lyn St. James would follow her path to the Indy 500, competing from 1992 to 2000. Sarah Fisher was a rookie in St. James' final Indy 500. Fisher competed in last year's race as an owner/driver before giving up the driver's seat this season to Ed Carpenter.

Patrick became the first female to lead laps in the Indy 500 and went on to finish fourth in 2005. Her third-place finish in the 2009 Indy 500 is the highest-finish ever by a female driver.

"I'm just trying to do everything I can do to compete at the highest level I'm capable of," Patrick said. "If that proves to people that women are capable of doing well, then great. It is pretty cool to see the 100th Anniversary come out and to have played a role in it and have a story come out of it. But when I see the faces on the trophy and I'm not one of them it makes me feel small and I want to win because I want to have my face on it. To have played a role in the Indianapolis 500 is great, but I want to play the ultimate role by winning it."

Patrick believes that doing well in the Indy 500 has helped create more awareness for female race drivers. It's the magnitude of the event that has helped spread the message.

"You have to imagine how much of that was women being in the event and how much of that was the event gets so much attention that storylines have a chance to get be exposed, developed and written about," Patrick said. "It's not a 'quick hit' weekend; you are here for a while. Either way, women have definitely played a role in the history here, from Janet Guthrie to Lyn St. James to Sarah Fisher and then me. And now to have four girls in the race, it's an opportunity where if you do well people will notice."

While Patrick is the most visible female in racing she doesn't make it a crusade. She wants to be considered the best race driver -- not the best female racer.

"For me and my life, my dad never talked about being the best girl driver or being a girl driver at all. It was about being fast and doing wel,l so there wasn't a lot of emphasis on that," Patrick said. "For me it wasn't important to know whether or not girls had done well here; it was about me coming here and doing what I could do.

"I did notice Sarah and that was getting into the years where I would have been paying attention to this level of racing. I knew that she did well at times and I took notice of that. Lyn St. James said the car doesn't know if you are a guy or a girl and I've repeated that because it's true."

Fisher will not compete in Sunday's Indy 500, but she has great admiration for the female drivers involved in the race.

"It's great that it wasn't a couple-year hit wonders and they moved on," Fisher said. "There are some good females like Simona. She's a badass. To get in there and do what she did, she is really a tough lady. There are a lot of women this year that have made an impact on this race. Simona just needs a little more experience.

"It's only her sophomore year. She looks like she has what it takes to take it to the next level on the ovals."

De Silvestro started off the season with a great finish at St. Petersburg. She was involved in a horrifying crash in practice last week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, suffering burns to both hands, but came back to qualify on Pole Day.

"I think it is pretty cool," de Silvestro said. "I have never raced against other girl drivers except for last year. It's 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 are four female drivers in this year's race."

While Guthrie admires drivers like Fisher, she questions the approach that Patrick has taken to her career. She admires Patrick for her racing skill and her fierce competitiveness but doesn't agree with the marketing path she has taken. She believes that has taken away from her credibility on the race track.

"Danica is a very capable driver, but I do regret those photos for the girlie magazine FHM that she did that will be around on the net forever," Guthrie said. "It's up to her. She chose that path. She has made a lot of money out of it and I guess I can't say too much about that.

"It is a touchy subject of course. I'm not really happy with the route that Danica has taken but it has gotten her a tremendous amount of money and the equipment, the team, the car and money in which to run up front. That is 75 percent of the game. She is capable. I just wish Sarah Fisher had had access to the same level of commitment."

Patrick and Fisher have benefited from those who drove before them and helped make it acceptable for a female to race in the male-dominated world of auto racing.

"I don't go out and tout that I'm a female in racing," Fisher said. "Others do that for me and I try to approach it as much like a male as I can. When you work in a male-dominated sport you have to speak their language -- Mars and Venus. But performance is No. 1."

Unlike Patrick, who was easily the most popular driver at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during her rookie season, Guthrie was met with social resistance when she tried to qualify for the race in 1976. It was at the height of the Women's Liberation Movement, when social activists like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug were challenging the patriarchal society around them.

"From my perspective, there had always been women in sports car racing, which is what I came out of," said Guthrie, who turned 68 on March 7. "I knew being a woman didn't make any difference; the only trouble was nobody else seemed to know that, so there was quite a bit of commotion."

Guthrie arrived at Trenton, N.J., a longtime date on the USAC schedule, and was met with bitter resistance.

"There was a humongous amount of controversy," she recalled. "There were drivers in [USAC president] Dick King's office pounding on his desk, demanding that he keep me out of the race at Trenton, and so on and so forth. It was a great surprise to me because, after all, I had 13 years of sports car racing experience. I had won my class twice at Sebring. I had driven a couple of Daytona 24 Hours. I had a championship or two.

"In all of those 13 years, being a woman had been an issue maybe twice. I had the great, good fortune of an even-handed upbringing where there was no idea girls couldn't do this or that. I'm the oldest of five boys and girls, and my parents brought the girls up equally to the boys."

Al Unser was at the height of his racing career in the mid-1970s and remembered how Guthrie was attempting to break into the sport.

"I'll admit she had a big nut to crack," Unser recalled. "She really did and I give her credit for that. She was the first woman at Indy and that's good. I think that's terrific.

"You have to come down and realize what a race car driver is. There are a lot of men that don't know that, either. But I don't think she was capable of carrying the car to a win. I think Danica Patrick is. She is a very strong young lady. The difference between the two is tremendous."

Guthrie would fail in her initial attempt to make the Indy 500 in 1976 because she didn't have the right equipment. H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., saw a promotional opportunity and arranged for Guthrie to get a ride in the 1976 World 600.

"The last thing that happened at Indianapolis, in 1976, was A.J. Foyt let me take his backup car out and practice," Guthrie said. "I ran that fast enough to make the field, but he decided not to let me make a qualifying attempt with it, so I had to wait a year. Nevertheless, driving Foyt's car was something that caused many people to change their initial opinion.

"All I asked is that they take a look at what I did on the race track and then make up their minds. Johnny Rutherford was really terrific, right from the beginning. A.J. Foyt was one of the first to take a look at what I did on the race track at Trenton, and he told them it looked all right to him."

Foyt broke ranks with the macho attitude that prevailed in Gasoline Alley when he decided to do Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman a favor.

"Mr. Hulman asked me if I would mind putting her in my backup car and I said that was fine," Foyt said. "Then they turned the yellow light on and my heart quit beating because that was my only backup car. But she was fine. She was a good race driver. It was a very big, historic moment.

"There were some of the guys making smart remarks and saying derogatory things, but it all came back and haunted them. Things change and history changes so I thought it was time for things to change in racing."

Rutherford didn't have any qualms about giving Guthrie some positive support because he was as interested as anyone to see what Guthrie could do in a race car.

"The fact she was the first woman to try and she had some credentials, she was a hard worker. She's a smart gal," Rutherford said. "She worked at NASA and has done a lot of smart things in her life. I thought if she had the credentials, why not let her try? She did and she struggled. She didn't have the best equipment to try to get in, but she did."

Guthrie returned to the Speedway in 1977 and became the first woman ever to make the field for the Indianapolis 500. She started 26th and finished 29th in the Bryant Heating and Cooling Special.

In 1978, Guthrie returned in the Texaco Star, starting 15th and finishing ninth, proving to fans that she actually could do it.

"I will always regret that I wasn't able to continue and accomplish what I felt I was capable of and wanted to do, which was to win races," Guthrie said. "I only drove 11 IndyCar races, with a best finish of fifth. I finished ninth at Indianapolis with a team that I formed and managed myself with my own money. I got the money a month before they opened practice. I bought the car, bought the spare engines for the car, hired the crew, rented the apartment for the crew and bought the curtains for the apartment all the things that a team owner has to do.

"It turned out well. We did have some significant problems during the race, but nevertheless, when you get a top-10 at Indianapolis, you will take it, especially back then."

To those who have followed in Guthrie's footsteps to the Indianapolis 500, they look at the pioneer with tremendous admiration.

"Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James helped pave the way," Patrick said. "That has been very important because all the support I got entering the season and the seasons before that, that gives you confidence and it keeps you motivated and excited. To not have that, I can imagine would have been a disadvantage. A positive attitude is pretty powerful."

Rutherford was there to see Guthrie open the door for women, and believes Patrick is ready for a trip to Victory Lane.

"Danica is in the same vein," Rutherford said. "When she led the 500 her rookie year, I've driven the Pace Car a few times there and I have never, ever before heard the crowd over the noise with the wind in the open car and the race cars behind me growling. The fans were all on their feet waving their programs and their towels and whatever they had. It was impressive. I think that speaks for itself.