Decades after Shirley Muldowney knocked down the gender barrier at the top levels of drag racing, success by women in motor sports is still largely hit or miss. But those who have followed the pioneers are now giving rise to more young drivers, and that next generation will one day be Patrick's legacy and that of today's other female racers.
Patrick became the first woman to win an open-wheel race when she passed Helio Castroneves and took the checkered flag April 20. She had several milestones prior to that, including a fourth-place finish at Indianapolis in 2005, which made her the highest-finishing and highest-qualifying (fourth) woman in the 500. She also became the first woman to lead multiple laps at Indy, running up front for 19 that year. As someone who said she always wanted to be known as a race car driver and not as a female race car driver, finally winning a race meant a lot.
"It's a first, and firsts are in history books," Patrick said of her Twin Ring Montegi triumph. "I've definitely thought about that before, and I've always hoped and wanted to be that person. It's probably one of the only things I ever really thought of myself as a girl. But I did think it would be nice to be the first female to win in history."
Patrick will try to make history again in Sunday's Indianapolis 500, but she and her fellow women drivers know it will still take some time -- and several more wins -- for women to be more than a blip on the radar screen in a male-dominated sport. Even last month's historic wins by Patrick in IndyCars and Ashley Force in the NHRA's Funny Car class won't cause an influx of competitive women at the top levels of racing. Melanie Troxel followed Force with a victory in Funny Car last week at Bristol, Tenn., her fifth overall victory in NHRA. Her previous four came in Top Fuel. However, the case of Sarah Fisher is proof that nothing will come easy for women in racing.
Fisher will start 22nd at this year's Indy, tying Lyn St. James for the most appearances by a woman with seven. (Milka Duno also made the field, putting three women in the Indy 500 starting lineup for the second consecutive year.) Fisher was the first woman to claim an IndyCar pole (2002 at Kentucky), and she still has the fastest qualifying time for a woman at Indy (229.439 mph average in 2002). But she continues to fight an uphill battle. Patrick's fame hasn't helped Fisher pay the bills. Along with her husband and father-in-law, she started Sarah Fisher Racing this year, and the 500 will be the team's first race. A failure by their first two sponsors to pay up has led Fisher to a different sponsorship plan: Text4cars.com has stepped in as primary sponsor, and both Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Hartman Oil are serving as associates. She has also accepted donations from fans.
Fisher knows what it's like to work her way up through the ranks, and she said her initial IndyCar splash in 1999 could show its effects in the next several years. "When I started, a lot of young girls looked up to what I was doing and because of that they started racing go-karts," Fisher said. "More girls are going to be able to see it's possible to be done.
Force grew up around racing. Her father, John Force, won a record 14 Funny Car titles. John has watched Ashley come up through the ranks, but her drive to succeed surprised even him. He admits he wasn't around for much of his children's formative years, always off chasing the next victory, but he found out about Ashley's race car dreams from a friend, who went to Ashley's school to do a program with a Funny Car team. He called John afterward to tell him Ashley was in an auto shop class at school. "I said, 'What the heck's she doing that for?'" John recalls. "I didn't know this about my own kid.
"So we sent her to Frank Hawley's driving school and I figured she'd get over it. Boy, she was hooked. So we found a sponsor. That's when Mattel toys signed up and made Barbie dolls with her. I said, 'My god, they just give me money. I can't get it for myself, but I can get it for my daughter.'"
Bumbera also followed in her father's footsteps, racing go-karts at the age of 8. She used her father's experiences as a Late Model driver to learn the business side during her teens, which has helped her for the past year and a half that she's been part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity initiative. She said the success of her female counterparts gives her confidence that she can also reach the top.
"It's a man's world," Bumbera said. "For a woman to come through [like Danica] and win like that is paving the way for everyone else that wants to do that. It shows everyone that it's possible."
Now 20, Bumbera is racing part-time in Camping World West and also racing Late Models regularly at All American Speedway in Roseville, Calif. She hopes to run full time in Camping World in the next year or two and eventually reach the Sprint Cup Series.
Aside from her obvious ability to pilot a car, Bumbera is also young, blonde and attractive. The unfortunate truth for women in motor sports is that sex appeal is often as important as their ability to drive. "A pretty young lady today in motor sports is going to have the opportunities," Muldowney said.
Patrick certainly has. She's posed for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue along with men's magazine FHM. Her commercial for GoDaddy.com was too racy to be shown during the Super Bowl.
Aside from her strong bloodline, Force is also well-known for her looks. Finding sponsorship is obviously easier for a woman whom men will find attractive.
"Deep down every female driver really wants to be recognized as a driver," Ashley Force said. "Really, the girl-guy thing is exciting for the fans and for the media, but as drivers, when we work and we train with our teams, we want to be recognized just for whether we're doing well or not."
To get to that point, it's going to take more than one or two victories a year. Women are going to have to compete on a weekly basis. They'll have to have the type of equipment Patrick has now with Andretti Green Racing and Force has with John Force Racing.
Patrick is fifth in IndyCar points entering Sunday's 500, trailing Castroneves by 34 points. In the NHRA, Force is second in Funny Car points, Hillary Will is fifth in Top Fuel, and Angelle Sampey (fifth) and Karen Stoffer (eighth) are in the top 10 in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
And Muldowney hasn't walked away for good just yet. She says she's raised about $1.2 million toward her goal of running a one-car team in Top Fuel with a female driver. However, Muldowney contends that she's not going back until she raises the approximately $3 million it will take to actually compete week-in and week-out.
"I miss [racing] every day," Muldowney said. "I had my turn at it, and I'm satisfied with that. But I would still like to go out there ... there is plenty of ass I would like to kick."
Women competing not only every week for wins but also moving into ownership roles will only help more women enter the sport. Fisher hopes to have a role in both.
"One or two [victories] here and there aren't going to change the sport as a whole," she says. "To consistently do that and keep providing results ... that's an awful broad shoulder to have because there are so few of us here. It can't just be equal opportunity. Not every girl has the ability to race cars. Not every boy has the ability to race cars. It's a special talent. If the talent is there, hopefully it can be looked at as equal regardless."
John Force hopes that will change soon enough. He says the time is here to end racing's time as a "man's world."
"In the old days, women raised our children, they cooked, but that day's gone," he said. "I think NASCAR's the only one left that doesn't have a woman in the seat, at least in the professional ranks, but why not? Women can raise our children, they can take off to corporate America, they're running our businesses, the stands are packed with them, and we've got a woman running for President. So why not? Why wouldn't you want a woman in a race car?"