© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Race fans applaud Danica Patrick as she poses on race day for her Alabama 500 NASCAR at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama, U.S. on October 15, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Written by Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) – The Indianapolis 500 was once a land of opportunity for female racers, but for the second time in three years there will be no female drivers on the grid at Brickyard when the green flag is hoisted on Sunday.
Pioneers such as Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to start the Indy 500 in 1977, have shaped motorsport, but recent progress has been slow rather than fast when it comes to racing’s biggest spectacle.
In 2010 and 2011, with four women spread across 33 automotive fields, IndyCar seemed to be on its way to the diversity that other sports were just beginning to touch.
Danica Patrick, the first and only woman to win an IndyCar race, has become the sport’s most popular and marketable name, and a crossover star with a charisma that transcends the racetrack.
But this progress has stalled. The 2020 Indy 500 was the first since 1999 without at least one woman in the field, and this year’s race will mark a second close in three years.
Patrick is back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week but as a TV commentator.
So did Sarah Fisher, the first woman to win an IndyCar title, who will be on the track on Sunday but behind the wheel of the fast car.
“There definitely should be more women in the sport, definitely in a place like this,” said Graham Rahal, who is married to former drag racer Courtney Force. “We need to create more opportunities to help out and find sponsors.”
While there will be no women on the Indy 500 network, there will be a few at other IndyCar tracks this season.
Colombian Tatiana Calderon, Alfa Romeo F1 test driver, races for the AJ Foyt on road and street track, while Swiss Simona de Silvestro, who was part of six Indy 500s, retires with Paretta Autosport, a female only. Team up with Ed Carpenter Racing to compete in three events.
“I know they have big plans and big goals to make sure they return to the Indy 500 in the future,” said Carpenter, a three-time Indy 500 finisher who will finish fourth on Sunday.
“I think it has to happen the right way. Just summing up something to say we have a woman starting the race, I don’t think that’s necessarily the point.
“We’ll see what the future holds.”
For Della Penna Motorsports Next Gen Foundation, the starting point is the popular sport, karting, and is the entry point into the sport for everyone from seven-time Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton to Danica Patrick.
The foundation recently established two advisory boards to support its mission to empower girls ages 5-16 and create a talent pipeline that provides career opportunities in motorsports on and off the track.
“It’s definitely popular,” the Michele Della Pena Foundation told Reuters. “The aim is to attract girls who are interested in them at an early age and give them an understanding of the various career opportunities in motorsports.
“Women are just as sexy to watch as men are. So if we can start getting publicity and sponsorship money to support them, I think we will see real change.”