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Four women, including Danica Patrick, set to contend in 2010 Indianapolis 500

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; D01

Danica Patrick could do no wrong in her 2005 debut in the Indianapolis 500.

Her every lap was chronicled as if it bore the historical significance of a lunar landing. And when she seized the lead with 10 laps to go, the 300,000 fans in the stands at Indianapolis Motor Speedway went wild.

Though Patrick finished fourth, forced to conserve fuel in order to complete the distance, it seemed at that moment that the 23-year-old rookie was poised to revive lagging interest in IndyCar racing and redefine what was possible for female athletes.

This past weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Patrick was roundly booed -- and justifiably so -- after blaming a poor qualifying result on her mechanics.

"It's not my fault," Patrick said over the public-address system after her 224.217-mph effort landed her 23rd in the 33-car field, barely locking in one of the 24 starting spots awarded the first day of a new two-day qualifying format.

Patrick wasn't the day's fastest woman, either, outperformed by two rookies: Ana Beatriz of Brazil, who'll line up 21st (224.243 mph) in Sunday's 94th running of the Indianapolis 500, and Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland, who'll start 22nd (224.228 mph).

Day 2 of qualifying saw two other women who were slow on Saturday -- American Sarah Fisher and Venezuela's Milka Duno -- among 13 drivers vying for the nine remaining starting spots in Sunday's race.

Fisher succeeded. Duno did not.

Never before had five women tried qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. And their results were no different from the 32 men who tried making the cut. Some exceeded expectations. Some fell short. And at least one behaved badly.

In short, it no longer is news that women show up at Indy. The news is what they do behind the wheel.

And that, in a sense, is as telling a measure of success as the fact that for the first time in history, four women will race in the Indianapolis 500 this year.

It has been 33 years since Janet Guthrie, trained as an aerospace engineer, became the first woman to compete in the 500. The racing suit and helmet she wore in 1977 now belong to the Smithsonian Museum.

Other Indy "firsts" have followed. In 2000, two women competed for the first time (Fisher and Lyn St. James). In 2007, three women were in the field (Fisher, Patrick and Duno). On Sunday, four will contend.

"We clearly value diversity as a brand attribute," says Terry Angstadt, president of the Indy Racing League's commercial division. It's good for business, Angstadt notes, with TV ratings spiking each time Patrick competes.

"But at the end of the day," he adds, "we think it's the right thing to do."

Not every form of motorsports has had success in cultivating or showcasing female drivers.

NASCAR, the country's most popular form of racing, won't have a woman among the 43-driver field for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, its longest race, designed to compete against the Indianapolis 500.

NASCAR, in fact, has never had a full-time female competitor in its top ranks, the Sprint Cup Series, and currently has just a handful of women in its developmental series. Patrick is among them, testing the lucrative stock-car waters by running a dozen Nationwide races this season. Her results have been unimpressive, with a best finish of 31st in three starts.

"NASCAR wants to have drivers that reflect the makeup of our society, because we know the easiest way to market to people is to have someone who looks like them have success," says Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage. "But wanting it doesn't make it happen."

The National Hot Rod Association has fared better, with Shirley Muldowney's three top-fuel championships in the late 1970s and early '80s paving the way for modern-day stars such as Pro Stock motorcycle champion Angelle Sampey and Funny Car title contender Ashley Force.

Gossage, who promotes both Indy Racing League and NASCAR events, theorizes that NASCAR's bulkier cars may be a barrier.

"It may not lend itself toward women, who are, by nature, smaller people," Gossage says. "The cars are bigger, heavier and require more physical demands. The races are longer. There are 38 races to a season, and it gets to be a tremendous physical grind. I'm not slamming women. I'm simply saying there is a big difference in a 3,400-pound stock car versus a [1,600-pound] Indy car."

Nonetheless, jockey-sized drivers like Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have won 122 NASCAR Sprint Cup races and four championships between them. Gordon readily concedes his achievements wouldn't have been possible in NASCAR's early years, before power steering was introduced. But few would argue that there's any physical reason for a gender-gap in the top ranks of stock cars today.

Beatriz, the Brazilian who was the fastest rookie to qualify for Sunday's Indianapolis 500, says she was drawn to open-wheel racing by the heroics of countryman Emerson Fittipaldi.

Daughter of a psychiatrist and a dentist, Beatriz started racing go-karts at age 8 shortly after watching Fittipaldi win his second Indianapolis 500 on TV. Until then she loved playing tennis, soccer and volleyball.

"But since I started in go-karts, I stopped them all," she said. "Racing is my biggest passion."

Beatriz won 40 go-kart races as a youngster in Brazil. She progressed from there to Formula car and the developmental Indy Lights Series. The latter gave her the opportunity to race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2008, albeit in a shorter race than Sunday's 500-miler.

"It's magical," Beatriz says of the famed oval. "Racing at more than 200 miles per hour -- it's a kind of feeling that is very special. And it becomes even more special after qualifying for the Indy 500. It is a great feeling of achievement."

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