INSIGHT: 2020 to end 20-year streak of female Indy 500 drivers

F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: 2020 to end 20-year streak of female Indy 500 drivers

IndyCar

INSIGHT: 2020 to end 20-year streak of female Indy 500 drivers

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For the first time since 1999, the Indianapolis 500 will be run without a female driver in the field on Sunday.

As the NTT IndyCar Series works to get its one-month-old Race for Equality & Change program up and running, the end of a streak that began in 2000 with Sarah Fisher, and closed with Pippa Mann in 2019, serves as an unfortunate reminder of how much work lies ahead to achieve its representational goals.

Well prior to the 20-year stretch, Janet Guthrie set the stage for women at the Indy 500 after breaking the gender barrier in 1977. Guthrie went on to compete twice more, contesting the 1978 and 1979 Indy 500s, but her pioneering endeavors weren’t rewarded with an immediate successor as more than a decade passed before Lyn St. James took the baton in 1992.

Guthrie finally bridged the gender gap in the late 1970s, though more than a decade would pass before another female driver would follow her lead. Image via IndyCar

The road racing ace would become a fixture on the big oval, racing in six straight Indy 500s through 1997, and, with Fisher’s emergence from the American short track racing scene in 2000, genuine talent-based momentum started to build. Danica Patrick followed in 2005, Simona de Silvestro and Ana Beatriz arrived in 2010, and a pair of Britons, Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge (photo above), made consecutive Indy 500 debuts in 2011 and 2012.

For now, that’s where the story ends.

Legge, the most active among the Indy 500 veterans in creating opportunities for female drivers, spent the early months of 2020 pursuing sponsorship to make her return to the Brickyard with a high-caliber team, but those efforts went unrewarded.

Mann’s tale of encountering apathy among potential Indy 500 sponsors was nearly identical.

Just as the Speedway spent 13 years waiting for the next Guthrie to appear, there’s no clear answer on when the next woman will find support to pursue glory at the world’s biggest race.

Beyond the immediate ramifications of seeing 33 men charging into Turn 1 on Sunday in pursuit of victory at the 104th running of the Indy 500, Legge looks to the absence of young women who are ready to fill the void.

“The 500’s about to start, and we won’t be represented,” Legge told RACER ahead of opening practice. “We’ve actually gone backwards, and it’s so frustrating. We could try to blame COVID-19 for our sponsorship troubles but, unfortunately, I don’t think that’s actually the case because there are 33 sponsored cars and no women in them. The problem goes deeper, actually.

“It’s a lack of women on the IndyCar ladder – the Road To Indy – who aren’t coming up and preparing to race in IndyCar. There are zero women there, bar one, maybe; and this is always the issue. We might have one, but it’s never five or 10. Too often, it’s zero.”

Although the former Champ Car driver and two-time Indy 500 starter has not given up on her ambition to compete in future editions of ‘The Greatest Spectacle In Racing,’ addressing the empty junior open-wheel pipeline, where the next Legges and de Silvestros would learn the nuances required to succeed in IndyCar, is the glaring issue to solve.

“There are only a few women in the world who are presently experienced and qualified to do the Indy 500,” Legge said. “There’s myself, Simona, Danica… And we, if you look back, got our starts in the 2000s. There’s a massive gap between our generation and whatever generation will hopefully come up beneath us.

“Where are the girls? In order to have women at the 500, they need to be on the Road to Indy to learn about ovals and everything they need to prepare for a career in IndyCar. Those young women exist, or rather, they could exist on the ladder; but there isn’t a lot of interest in supporting them.

“The outcome of it all is we’re many years behind in developing talented women there, and there’s nobody who’s ready to come in. I think it’s a shame. The only hope we probably have to look forward to is the new diversity program.”

Penske Corporation president Bud Denker is directly involved in building the series’ Race for Equality & Change platform. Although the program’s July 4 announcement focused on its intent to groom young racers of color, Denker confirmed the full measure of RE&C will include creating opportunities for young women on the Road To Indy.

“I was very disappointed, obviously, that we don’t have women in this year’s race,” he said. “But we certainly are hopeful that we can affect change, since we don’t have women in the pipeline. We also don’t have African-Americans, or Latinos, or many others that we want and need in IndyCar.”

Beyond enrolling young women in the Road To Indy, the equivalent of an open-wheel racing university, Legge wants to see a cultural shift within the sport that places genuine value on the hiring and corporate backing for female driving talent.

Sadly, Mann’s strong performance in last year’s Indy 500 wasn’t enough to secure sponsorship for a 2020 return. Image by Baker/Motorsport Images

“Strictly for what we’ve witnessed in IndyCar, unfortunately, we’ve been taken away by other series, like IMSA for example, that have made more of a point to have female drivers involved,” she said. “I don’t fully understand why there’s such a difference. Simona, Christina (Nielsen), myself, Tatiana (Calderon), Rachel (Frey), Alice Powell—a bunch of us—get calls to work and drive in sports cars.

“But those calls don’t really come outside of sports cars, so that’s why you have so many women in IMSA, or the ELMS. Or even the W Series, which is strictly for women, obviously. You go where the opportunities are, and maybe if you don’t find women in a particular series, it should have you asking some hard questions as to why it’s that way.”

Looking to IndyCar’s future, Legge welcomes the chance to assist the RE&C program in identifying and developing next-generation talent. The desired outcome would be to have more than one or two women in competitive, full-time rides.

“One of the main problems has been (that) other than Danica, and maybe Simona when she was briefly with Andretti Autosport, we’re rarely in cars capable of winning,” she said. “I don’t want to do the Indy 500 just for the sake of doing it, right? As a competitor, having a shot of winning is the motivation to be there, not simply making up the numbers.

“I don’t see it getting any better for a couple of years, probably three or four years, before the next generation arrives, maybe. In order to entice more women into the sport, you need to showcase the ones that are already there, which is what we were trying to do in IMSA; but it’s tough, and made harder when we aren’t there. Even our Girl Empowerment Around Racing (IMSA) program, at the moment, is on a hiatus because of a lack of sponsorship. I’ve heard a number of racing series say we’re important to them. We’ll see.”

As the new owners of the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Penske’s management team is on the clock to demonstrate the power contained within the RE&C.

“We completed the purchase of IndyCar and the Speedway in January, and you’ve got to start somewhere, so we’re starting this new program now,” Denker said. “We can’t wave a magic wand overnight, but it’s certainly our intention to develop and expand women, gender, race, and ethnicity in our sport. That’s our desire, and you’re going to see results that will show the fact that we are putting our money and our actions into those words. We’ll have more information about it as we go along for the next weeks, as well as months, as the program is built and set in motion.”

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