ST JAMES: The new normal

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ST JAMES: The new normal

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ST JAMES: The new normal

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At many of my press conferences in the ‘90s at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, I was asked about being the only female driver at Indy, and my response would often be that there were other women racers coming. I knew this because of the many drivers who attended my annual driver development program, and because much of the fan mail from women were not only asking for an autograph, but also asking for advice. So who are these racers, and where did they come from?

Sarah Fisher began racing at the age of five in quarter midgets, won championships in go-karts, and moved into sprint cars and midgets before stepping into an IndyCar and racing in the Indianapolis 500 at the young age of 19, becoming the third – and youngest – woman to compete at Indy. Fans voted her the most popular driver in 2001. After a number of seasons in IndyCar racing, she moved over to racing stock cars for a few seasons where fans voted her Most Popular Driver in the NASCAR West Series. She returned to IndyCar racing and eventually starting her own team with her husband Andy O’Gara and father-in-law John O’Gara. She had some stellar performances in every type of racing she competed in, and now is the mother of two and has developed her business ventures to include Speedway Indoor Karting in Speedway, IN and is expanding to other locations.

Kathryn Nunn tested several women drivers for a planned Infiniti Pro Series team at Texas in 2004. Image courtesy of the author

Danica Patrick arrived on the scene in a big way at the 2005 Indianapolis 500, where she finished fourth. Danica started racing go-karts at the age of 10. I met Danica and her parents when she attended my driver development program as a 14-year-old, and she returned to the program when she was 16. She immediately stood out, and was the recipient of our Kara Hendrick Scholarship. Also at 16, she moved to the U.K. to race in the junior formula cars on an international scale, where she was the highest finishing American driver in the prestigious annual Formula Ford Festival. Indy 500 winner/champion/team owner Bobby Rahal saw her talent and signed her for the Formula Atlantic Series, then moved her up to the IndyCar Series. Just about everyone in the stands were on their feet when Danica took the lead in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, and she still holds the record as the first (and only) woman to win an IndyCar race, the 2008 Indy Japan 300 in Motegi. She moved over to NASCAR and competed for seven seasons. Now retired, she continues to expand her brand in wine, podcasts, and fitness apparel.

In 2004 Kathryn Nunn, wife of legendary engineer/team owner Mo Nunn, contacted me about finding a female driver to include in her new two-car team in the Menard Infiniti Pro Series (now Indy Lights). We talked about inviting some top female racers to a test, which was set up at Texas Motor Speedway with the help of Firestone Tires. Drivers who attended were USAC Midget/Sprint car racers Sondi Eden, Sarah McCune, Becca Anderson, Wendy Mathis, sports car racer Rossella Manfranato, and go-kart champion Juliana Chiovitti. One racer who was not invited (but after chatting with her on the phone while she was in the U.K., I told her to show up anyway) was Katherine Legge. That was a testament to Katherine’s ambitious and bold approach to her racing career, which has been outstanding. She’s been successful competing in the Champ Car/Indycar Series, Formula Atlantic, DTM, A1GP, Formula , IMSA Sports Cars and NASCAR Xfinity Series. Katherine continues to not only compete all over the world, but is an ambassador for the FIA Women in Motorsports Commission. Kathryn Nunn’s team never did get off the ground.

Billie Jean King was the Honorary Grand Marshal on the opening day of qualifying for the 2007 Indy when there, for the first time ever, there were three women attempting to qualify – Danica, Sarah Fisher, and Milka Duno. Since then there have been nine women who have successfully raced in the Indianapolis 500; Janet Guthrie, myself, Sarah, Danica, Milka, Ana Beatriz, Simona De Silvestro, Pippa Mann, and Katherine.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King was the Honorary Grand Marshal on the opening qualifying day at Indy in 2007 – the same year that a record three women were in the field. Left to right: Milka Duno, Sarah Fisher, the author, King, Danica Patrick. Image courtesy of the author

Meanwhile, women racers in NHRA were setting the tracks on fire. The Force sisters – Ashley, Courtney and Brittany – all carried on the family tradition with victories and championships. Four-time Pro Stock Champion Erica Enders has dominated the Pro Stock category since 2014. Melanie Troxel was the only woman to have won races in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, and was the only race car driver voted Athlete of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation in 2006. Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Angelle Sampey is NHRA’s winningest female racer with 43 NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle wins.

While working with The Henry Ford Museum on a new permanent exhibit on the history of racing in America (which is set to debut on March 24, 2021) they encouraged me to create a traveling exhibit on the history of women in racing. The exhibit debuted in 2010 at Daytona International Speedway and traveled to the Indiana State Museum, Arizona Science Center, and other venues. We did a timeline of women racers from the early 1900s to the-then current 2010, and included a panel of 30 young up and coming drivers. We also included stories about women in the business and technology fields in motorsports. It was wonderful watching jaws drop while viewing the exhibit as people took in the breadth and depth of it.

Sometimes opportunities and timing just work against you. There are a few other outstanding talented racers I’d like to highlight here where the window of opportunity seemed to close rather than open.

I met Sara Senske in 1994 when she was 16 years old and attended my driver development program. She made it clear to me that she intended to be the first women racer to win the Indianapolis 500. Sara came from the Pacific Northwest, was a go-kart champion, and competed in the West Coast Star Mazda and Barber Dodge Series, where she had podium finishes. As often happens, lack of funding and opportunities brought her career to halt. Based on her age and potential she could have shadowed Danica’s career. There are many stories like this for racers, male or female, where the window of opportunity and timing close too soon.

These are just some of the stories of the women racers who arrived on the scene in a new decade and are creating their own legends and setting an example for future racers. The future is bright!

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