INDIANAPOLIS — It took 61 years before we finally had a woman be able to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. The first Indy 500 took place in 1911 and other than both World War’s, the race has always been around here in the Circle City each Memorial Day or Memorial Day weekend.
But, it wasn’t until 1977 to when we finally saw the first female join the ranks of ‘500 participants. Janet Guthrie was the pioneer to pave the path for females that auto racing wasn’t just a mans sport, women should be included too. There’s a great documentary about Guthrie and her racing career, but the historic 1977 race was big for not just Indy, but for all women across the board.
Unfortunately, the list of females to have been able to race in the biggest sporting event in the world is limited. As we sit here today, nearly 800 drivers have ever raced in the Indy 500. Unfortunately, only nine of those drivers are female. That’s right, only nine women in the history of entire of the world has ever strapped herself into an Indy Car on Memorial Day weekend here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Barring an unexpected last minute announcement, that number isn’t likely going to grow on May 29 either.
For just the second time since 1999, no women will likely be in the field of 33. Guthrie started it in 1977 and raced in 1978 and 1979 too. It took 13 years before we’d get another female in Lyn St. James. She’d race six straight years but 1998 and 1999 were the only years after that we’d not have a female participant.
St. James and Sarah Fisher were here in 2000 as it was St. James’ seventh and final Indy 500 start but Fisher’s first. Fisher, ran in all five years between 2000 and 2004, then was back four more between 2007 and 2010. In 2005, it was Danica Patrick’s turn and like Guthrie, she really put more attention for females and racing.
Danica, became the first woman to lead a lap in that race and gave us the best results out of a female erasing the stigma that females aren’t fast enough. I’m glad she shoved that narrative back to the 20th century and was damn fast here in all eight of her Indy appearances.
That led a path for Milka Duno, Ana Beatriz, Simon De Silvestro, Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge to Indy.
In 2007, we saw multiple females in this race with Fisher, Patrick and Duno. It would stay that way for 2008 and 2009 too. In 2010, it was three, but Duno was out and Beatriz in.
For 2011, the 100th anniversary of the first ever Indy 500 in 1911, we saw a record four female drivers in the field of 33. Patrick, Beatriz, De Silvestro and Mann all joined. 2012 was back to three, but Danica went to NASCAR, Pippa out for a year but Beatriz, De Silvestro and Legge came into the mix.
Mann, kept the dream alive for females the last several years and Danica didn’t come back until her one off in 2018. De Silvestro went overseas after the 2015 season and back again last year. Legge, ran twice in 2012 and 2013. Mann, stayed for six races in a seven year span between 2013 and 2019.
After Paretta’s debut in 2021, they won’t be back at Indy at least until 2023. That’s where this problem still lies. You can’t keep doing these things as a one-off. They need support and a solid foundation to help grow.
While that’s honestly still great news, it’s still concerning that we’re in 2022 and don’t have a great path for female drivers yet. We thought we did a year ago when Paretta announced an all female team with a female driver and on the surface it appeared this was the start of a great new initiative.
Unfortunately, as quick as the attention came, it went away. Paretta, gave the car back to Juncos and without a car or engine, despite aiming for more races, nothing was ever solidified to do so.
Now, it’s being exposed that what happened last year wasn’t quite good enough. As to who’s fault it lies?
I don’t think you can point the blame directly to INDYCAR or even Roger Penske. This was one of his main goals of his when he took over. He wanted a female presence here.
“To have a woman in this race was one of really my number one goals after last year when we didn’t have one in the race,” he told me last year on pit road during Bump Day. “That’s one thing that I can say that I couldn’t feel better about.”
I believe him. I take him for face value then and and do now and have to believe that he doesn’t feel good about where it stands. While he helped spearhead the initiative, it’s not like he can do it all for them either. At some point, someone else needs to step up to make it work. How badly do we all want it?
Granted, Paretta has to pull their weight too. You can take handouts. That’s the other part of the problem is that I have a feeling that it’s hard to do it as an all female team when honestly some doors may be closed to them. That’s where this initiative is driven to show that they’re serious and that females can equally be as involved in this sport as males.
That’s where we’re at today.
INDYCAR has done a great job of the “Race for Equality & Change” initiative and has a path for minorities to not only work in the sport but to drive in it too. You just hope that it stays and grows and not goes backwards too.
Myles Rowe needs multiple chances. Not just one. Ernie Francis Jr. needs more than one year in Indy Lights. Not just one. On the female side, Paretta needs more than one shot in the Indy 500. Not just one.
That’s a thing that INDYCAR can address the most is how do you keep the two initiatives (Female and Race for Equality & Change) going where it’s not just a short burst? We’ve seen that in the Road to Indy program. Drivers get chances to move up to INDYCAR but their stay in INDYCAR is sometimes brief.
The paths are set. It’s perfecting them and ensuring that these paths remain open and wide and not just a one year feel good story.
The other part is honestly at the grass roots levels. Girls need to know that they’re welcomed to strap into a go-kart. It’s not just a boys sport. Girls can do this too. It’s okay to have the same dreams of chasing a cold bottle of milk at Indy like a boy would. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
We need more girls wanting to race and then helping them grow and take a path to INDYCAR. The path is there and I hope it stays open. Hopefully, this is the last time we don’t have a female racing at Indy.