Five years after Danica Patrick bolted to NASCAR, there are still no female drivers competing full time in the Verizon IndyCar series and, somewhat surprisingly, there's only one racing in the Mazda Road to Indy driver developmental program.
The upshot is that the up-and-comer, Norway's 22-year-old Ayla Agren, may ultimately prove to be pretty good.
Agren (her first name is pronounced EYE-la) became the first female champion of the SCCA F1600 series in 2014, when she made a last-lap pass in the final race for her third victory of the season. While she struggled last year after stepping up to the much tougher USF2000 series, she's with a more experienced team this year, and at least one driver development guru expects her to fare much better.
"Having watched young drivers for so many years in all the various things I've been doing in open-wheel racing, Ayla, to me, is very rare," says Dan Andersen, whose company, Andersen Promotions, operates the three-rung Road to Indy program. "I don't know how to say this without sounding gender-biased, but you see a lot of young female drivers come along and a lot of times they're getting ahead in the sport because of their gender and not necessarily because they have outstanding talent. But Ayla is the real deal. She would be fast whether she was a boy or a girl. She is absolutely talented and could go all the way."
All the way is, at best, a few years away. USF2000 is the first rung in a program that progresses to Pro Mazda and Indy Lights before IndyCar, and all three ladder series have young and hungry drivers from around the world fighting to get there.
Agren has high expectations for herself after last year's uninspiring 10th-place finish in the points for Team Pelfrey, the team with whom she won the F1600 championship. Her next race is April 22-24 at Barber Motorsports Park, where she was among the fastest drivers in a two-day preseason test.
"My goal is to win this championship," she says. "I want to win this championship because winning the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship is the only real way I see that I'm going to be able to move up to the next level."
As part of the Mazda Road to Indy program, the champions at each level receive scholarship funds to advance. There's about $325,000 available to the USF2000 champion.
Agren will have to race better than she did at the opening events in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she finished 10th and 13th. She had a tough debut with her new team, John Cummiskey Racing, which had to start both of its cars near the rear of the field because of a technical infraction in qualifying.
Cummiskey has an impressive resume in racing. He was a mechanic in the '90s at Penske Racing for Indy 500 winners Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr., the chief mechanic for Michael Andretti in the early 2000s, and team manager for Dragon Racing from 2008-2011. He has been hired by Agren to not only provide her with fast cars, but also teach her how to be a better race car driver. He is frank in saying Agren is a work in progress.
"We're still learning her, what she needs, what she wants out of the car," Cummiskey says. "She's still learning how to drive, to be honest. She's making mistakes, which is to be expected at this level. It's our job to help her fix those."
Cummiskey also says Agren has to bring her aggressiveness to a level commensurate with her male counterparts, who will do anything to advance.
"One of the things we're pushing for from Ayla is, to be honest, she's got to be a little more mean," he says. "She's got a couple of things going against her for that. She's a girl, and generally girls are nice people, and she's Scandinavian, and generally they're nice people. It's not that we don't want her to be nice, but you need to shut that off in the race car."
Agren is half-Norwegian and half-Swedish, her parents, Glenn and Beate Agren, having met at the European championships of windsurfing. Glenn built a sailboat to take the family on a trip around the world, but shortly after they began the first leg across the Atlantic, Ayla's brother, Sebastian, became ill, and Glenn turned the boat back.
Soon after, the family wound up at the Nordic Karting Championships, and Ayla, only about 7 at the time, was almost immediately hooked.
"My uncle and cousin were racing," Agren recalls. "I saw another girl racing at that point, so I started asking my parents, 'Hey, can I get my license?' Eventually, they said yes. And soon after that, it became a lifestyle. My dad was my mechanic."
Ayla was positively a "demon" in the karting ranks, to use Cummiskey's word, and her success convinced her to come to America in 2011 and start a path to IndyCar.
And she may well have stayed in Europe if not for a May afternoon, when Agren was 11, that a pint-sized brunette named Danica finished fourth in the 2005 Indianapolis 500. Agren counts Patrick as one of her two main sports heroes, along with Jules Bianchi, a French driver she'd karted with who was fatally injured during practice for the 2014 Formula One Japanese Grand Prix.
"Danica is the one who opened my eyes to IndyCar," says Agren, who has a bachelor's degree in business and has done work for the Women's Sports Foundation. "I owe it all to her that I'm here today, because without me getting to know IndyCar at a young age, I don't know that I would have had it as a goal."
Agren says she raced with at least nine or 10 other female rivers when she was in karting, although they weren't all in the same division. That few girls from karting are advancing to the higher levels of racing is at least partly a matter of talent, says Andersen, who also operates a karting track in Florida.
"You want to do the right thing and promote all kinds of drivers, but they also have to be ready to compete. Ayla is ready to compete. She's somebody who can win USF2000 races."