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Thursday, May 9
Updated: May 11, 10:36 AM ET
Victory Lane still elusive
By Robin Miller
INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the big dramas this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was whether Sarah Fisher would be competing. It was daily news in the media and there was much hand-wringing among the fans because the Indy Racing League's most popular driver had no ride until a last-minute deal.
That's how much things have changed at the Brickyard in the past 30 years.
The mere thought of a woman getting into Gasoline Alley, let alone the Indianapolis 500, was ludicrous in the '50s and '60s. It was a man's world that required muscle and guts to handle a bulky roadster and a driver's lifespan was often a short one.
Old-timers and hardliners were outraged in 1974 when women were finally allowed in the pits and garage area but it was nothing compared to the outcry from veteran drivers when they learned Arlene Hiss and Janet Guthrie were about to break into the Boys Club.
In 1976, Hiss (whose husband was an Indy-car regular in the early '70s) became the first woman to ever compete in an Indy-car race at Phoenix, Ariz.
That May, Guthrie broke the gender barrier at Indy and she qualified for the starting lineup in 1977.
Desire Wilson competed in CART during the '80s but never made Indianapolis, while Lyn St. James carried the flag all through the '90s and was a seven-time Indy starter.
But, despite their moxie and ability to qualify in Indy's pressure cooker, none of these ladies ever challenged for a good result, let alone a victory.
Sure, the record book shows Guthrie finished ninth in 1978 but she was 10 laps behind winner Al Unser Sr.
While they didn't drive for top teams, that's not why they didn't have more success. Their inability to ever run up front coincided with their ages and lack of open-wheel experience.
Other than Wilson, who captured a race in the Aurora Series (older style Formula One cars) in the late '70s and ran in junior formulas, everyone else came from sports cars and Indy cars came very late in their careers.
Guthrie was a rookie at age 38 and St. James had just turned 45 when she debuted at the Speedway. Qualifying at Indy certainly rates as a major accomplishment but they truly weren't equipped to slug it out with the big boys at 200 mph.
That's why Danica Patrick and Fisher are already miles ahead of their predecessors.
Patrick, a 100-pound, 20-year-old dynamo from Rockford, Ill. whose beguiling looks belie her construction worker's handshake, is as serious about motorsports as any man.
At age 16, she went to Europe and spent three years running the competitive junior formulas where she managed to finish second in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival in 2001. The last American to shine that brightly was 1985 Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan.
"Danica is the real deal," said Tommy Kendall, a perennial champion in Trans-Am who recently competed (and finished behind) against Patrick in a celebrity sports car race. "She's very focused, very aggressive and very good.
"I hope she gets a good opportunity to move up the CART ladder because I really think she can handle it."
Fisher, 21, cut her teeth in midgets and sprint cars on bullrings around the midwest before jumping directly into Indy cars in 1999. Last year at Homestead, Fla. she ran second to eventual Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr.
Her two-year ride with Derrick Walker deteriorated before she finally got a shot last month at Nazareth, Pa. to sub for the injured Robbie Buhl. She finished fourth and was rewarded with Buhl's backup car for Indy earlier this week.
"Sarah is not afraid to run the car hard into the corner, she's plenty brave. But she just needs to learn how to make the car do the work," said Buhl, who is now both owner and coach to Fisher's career.
"What some people forget is that she's only 21 years old. To be where she is at that age is pretty amazing."
Nobody represents the old guard like A.J. Foyt. The four-time winner thrived and survived in an era where race drivers were endangered species. The thought of a woman driving an Indy car in those days was a moral, if not physical impossibility.
"No way in hell a woman could have driven a roadster or at a place like Langhorne," said Foyt, referring to the lethal dirt track in Pennsylvania. "There was no power steering and those cars and tracks would wear your ass out."
Asked if he might live long enough to see a female drive an Indy car into victory lane, Foyt thought for a moment and replied: "It's possible, under the right circumstances and with the right team.
"The cars are so much easier to drive nowadays and they don't have a thousand horsepower like 25 years ago. So I guess it's possible. Sarah damn near won last year."
You might not ever see Foyt hiring a woman, but the fact he considers them a potential threat says a lot about how far they've come at Indianapolis.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories