Indy500: The Women of the fastest race on the planet
From Janet Guthrie's historic first ever female qualification in 1977, to the record-breaking Danica Patrick; from programs like Paretta Autosport to the hopes for the future: here's a quick summary of the women that contributed to the legendary history of the Indianapolis 500.
Let’s talk about Women and the fastest race on the planet.
The first success story actually dates back to 1929, with Maude Yagle becoming the first female team owner to win the Indy 500, with driver Ray Keech. Even though there were some famous female racing drivers in the pre-war era, the movement picked up pace in the late 70s.
Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the greatest spectacle in racing in 1977 and entered 5 editions.
Born in 1938, Guthrie earned a pilot license at 17 and went on to study and work in the aviation field as an engineer. She would also qualify for an astronaut program for NASA, but later focused on her passion for car racing.
Having started in sports cars, she won several races and was part of an all-female racing team from 1966 to 1971. Guthrie – who's life is also told in the ESPN documentary 'Qualified' – made history in 1977, becoming the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 miles race after a previous attempt in 1976.
To better understand the cultural mindset at the time and what such an achievement meant, Indianapolis Motor Speedway had banned women from entering the press and pit area until 1971.
In 1982 Desiré Wilson first qualified for the race, after also trying to qualify at Silverstone for the British F1 GP in 1980. She then won a F1 non-championship race at Brands Hatch in the same year.
American Amber Furst was denied the entry due to lack of experience in 1983 and was not allowed to participate in the rookie orientation program and we had to wait until 1992 to have another female entry: the now iconic Lyn St James, who was the first woman to become Rookie of the Year. She last entered the race in 2000 after 7 participations and today is a coach and advocate for women in the sport – having recently launched the Women In Motorsport North America program.
Sarah Fisher was a big name in Indycar in the early 2000s and famously took a pole position in IndyCar at Kentucky Speedway, before becoming team owner after a very successful racing career. Fisher will be driving the official pace car in this year's running of the Indianapolis 500.
Probably the best known female drivers of all times – and certainly the one with the strongest bond with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is Danica Patrick.
At the age of 23, Patrick stunned the world at her first Indy 500 in 2005, qualifying fourth and leading 19 laps in the latter stages of the race, before having to save fuel and missing out on a victory.
But Patrick continued to break records at Indy – and she would top her best result in 2009, with a third place that today still stands as the best finish for a woman at the Speedway. Her performance in one of the biggest races on the planet certainly contributed to fuel the female movement in motorsport, as many young girls were inspired by Danica – who had really become a worldwide brand - and for the first time showed the world that motor racing could be a women’s sport.
Venezuelan Milka Duno entered four editions between 2007 and 2010, before the debut of another history-maker: Simona De Silvestro. The Swiss racer was the third woman to be awarded with the Rookie of the Year title in 2010 and is so far the latest to have entered the race last year – in a female-led effort under the banner of Paretta Autosport.
Beth Paretta, in fact, an automotive executive, launched her own team which featured a vast number of female management, engineers and mechanics – and made history by qualifying for the big race in a spectacular bump day.
Paretta Autosport plans to return for a full time entry were not immediately successful but thy will finally make their way back on the grid in IndyCar at Road America, Mid-Ohio and Nashville for a 3-race program in 2022, always with Simona De Silvestro behind the wheel and with a new partnership with Ed Carpenter Racing.
2010, 2011 and 2013 were also the years with the most female participation – with 4 drivers on the grid. Ana Beatriz, Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge all made appearances up until 2019, when Pippa Mann had her strongest finish of P16 with a remarkable run in the rookie team Clauson Marshall Racing.
For the first time in 20 years, 2020 was the first year with no female participation and, while we had the return of De Silvestro last year, again 2022 will be an unsuccessful edition for women in motorsport.
The hopes for the future certainly lie in programs like Paretta Autosport, as well as Tatiana Calderon, who made her debut in 2022 with AJ Foyt Racing. While she is not competing in ovals in her rookie season, that might change next year and we might have again some hope for female drivers at the legendary race.
But, at the same time, we also need a new generation of up-and-coming female racers on the Road to Indy ladder. So far, we are experiencing a bit of a difficult time as we don’t find any driver particularly close to getting an IndyCar seat, Lindsay Brewer being the only driver in IndyPro 2000 and the few ladies racing at F4 level are now either on the W Series path or looking at sports cars. So definitely there is still some work to do for IndyCar in regards to diversity programs.
Hopefully, De Silvestro and Calderon can perform well in their road course schedules and can finally receive the backing they deserve – as we are looking forward to finally celebrating the first female Indy 500 champion in the near future.