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All about the ladies at Indy 500 this year

Photo by Darron Cummings

Photo by Darron Cummings

INDIANAPOLIS -- Janet Guthrie can see progress moving at full throttle.

The pioneering racer is now watching five women try to duplicate her milestone achievement by qualifying for this year's Indianapolis 500. There are women climbing over the wall for pit stops and female engineers dissecting data at Indy, giving a male-dominated sport the kind of female touch Guthrie always envisioned.

"I thought it would take two generations," she told The Associated Press by phone Sunday. "But it's only taken a little more than one."

It's been 33 years since Guthrie became the first woman to start a race at the famed Brickyard, and for most of that time, Guthrie stood virtually alone.

From her breakthrough moment in 1977 until 1999 only one other woman, Lyn St. James, qualified for Indy's 33-car starting grid. No more than two women were entered in any 500 from 2000-06.

Now the numbers -- and perceptions -- are rapidly changing.

This year's potential female starters at Indy consist of the glamorous Danica Patrick, the first woman to win an IndyCar race; the personable Sarah Fisher, the first woman to win an IndyCar pole; fan favorite Milka Duno and two relatively unknown but promising rookies, Brazil's Ana Beatriz and Switzerland's Simona de Silvestro.

If each makes the May 30 field, it would mark the first time any has been part of a race featuring five women.

"I think it would be neat," Fisher said. "But what's really cool is they're all qualified (drivers)."

While fans and officials welcome the influx of women, the times haven't always been so cordial.

When Guthrie started her quest to qualify at Indy, she became the target of a letter-writing campaign to keep her out. Companies insisted they feared sponsoring a woman because of racing's dangers, a refrain that included an airline company telling Guthrie it didn't want "anything to do with a sport that involved crashes." Guthrie even remembers her team owner explaining why NASCAR put three women on the 1977 Firecracker 400 starting grid -- to prove they didn't belong.

Guthrie's calm, eloquent demeanor helped stop those arguments, even though it wasn't until 2001 that Fisher noticed a different clientele at the track.

"You'd see fathers bringing their daughters to the autograph line," Fisher said as she pointed toward a photo of a girl driving a go-kart. "Now I sign a lot of pictures like this."

Four years later, Patrick joined the circuit and her emergence changed the sport again.

A fourth-place finish at Indy in 2005 kicked off Danicamania and instantly turned her into the series covergirl. Suddenly, the questions were no longer about whether Patrick belonged in IndyCars at the age of 23. Everyone wanted to know how long it would take her to win.

"I remember coming into the first year and thinking, 'Well, you know, there's no guarantee that I would stay if I don't do well my first year. Who knows what's going to happen,'" she said. "You know, kind of after the first part of the season, which included through Indy and stuff, I went, 'I think maybe I'll get another job next year.'"

Patrick has been one of the series most popular drivers since that race, and her success had a huge impact for future generations of women.

Sponsors that once backed away from Guthrie saw the obvious marketability of having Patrick pitch their products and started lining up to get on Patrick's team.

"I think that would be hard to question," said Terry Angstadt, president of the IRL's commercial division.

The pace of change cranked up again in 2008 after Patrick's victory at Japan put the IndyCar women's movement back on center stage.

A month later, Fisher came to Indianapolis as the first woman with full ownership of her own team since Guthrie in 1978. Last May, Anna Chatten, went over the wall as Duno's air jack operator, a job she has again this year with KV Racing's Mario Moraes.

Why has the IndyCar Series become a world full of women?

"I think it's more open because Danica has been here a couple of years now," said de Silvestro, who led four laps in her IndyCar debut in March. "I'm sure it will change everywhere else if girls can be competitive."

Winning races, of course, is what matters most -- even to the guys.

"I think it would cheapen the experience for the fans, for the stakeholders, for the competitors if it was just a circus-act sideshow," driver Townsend Bell said. "But the fact there are some women who can run at the front of this race here authenticates what they can do."

The 72-year-old Guthrie never doubted this day would come. She just wasn't sure she'd be around long enough to see it.

What Guthrie likes most, though, is seeing a whole new generation of women drivers doing their thing, their way.

"I'm perfectly delighted, especially with Ana and Simona because they've both shown terrific talent in the lower levels and they deserve a chance at the top spot," Guthrie said. "Having five women start at Indy? That would be spectacular. I'd love it."