INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Katherine Legge remembers returning to the Indianapolis 500 for the second time a decade ago, and the unmistakable feeling of satisfaction she experienced walking through Gasoline Alley and knowing that she was not alone.
For the third time in four years, a record-tying four women were in the 33-car field that day.
“That was the era of Sarah Fisher and then Danica Patrick came along and then, you know, there's me and Simona de Silvestro and I just thought it would kind of snowball and grow,” Legge recalled, before pausing for a moment. “But it hasn't.”
Instead, Legge is the only female driver who will start “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on Sunday.
The women's movement that began when Janet Guthrie qualified for the first time in 1977, gained traction with Lyn St. James in the 1980s and hit its stride with the arrival of Patrick in the early 2000s has stalled out. By 2020, not only was there no female driver in the field for the first time since 1999, but none even tried for the first time since 1991.
De Silvestro started the 2021 race for an all-woman team, Paretta Autosport, but there were no women again last year, and Legge struggled to qualify this year before wrecking in practice. The 42-year-old Briton will start in the penultimate row in the 107th running of the race that has seen only nine women on the grid over more than a century.
“It's really bad, isn't it?” Legge asked. “Because I thought there was going to be more. I mean, there’s only been nine of us that have run the Indy 500. I hope one year there’s nine of us on the grid, you know?"
It doesn't appear that will happen anytime soon.
Jamie Chadwick is the only woman this season in Indy NXT, the top rung in IndyCar's feeder system, and she's struggled for Andretti Autosport after arriving from the now-inactive, all-woman W Series, which had aimed to provide female drivers more racing opportunities. Lindsay Brewer is likewise alone a step down at the USF Pro 2000 level, and few young women occupy the highest levels of European karting, which is often the first step for drivers with Formula One aspirations.
So why did the slowly building momentum for women at Indianapolis Motor Speedway come to such a crashing halt?
At the entry level, where drivers are sometimes no older than 6 and girls are vastly outnumbered by boys, they are often subjected to intense bullying. More than once, Legge recalled, it was so bad that she nearly quit.
“The desire has to be so high to go through all the hardships that you have to go through to do it,” she said, “that I think a lot of them, it’s just too much. But the ones who do make it through, I think that lesson helps them down the line in racing.”
At the highest levels, drivers often must secure their own sponsorship to help offset the immense funding required of an IndyCar program. That can be difficult for women in the male-dominated sport.
“Men are getting sponsorship and women can't. That sounds unfair but who cares about unfair?” Guthrie told The Los Angeles Times in 1987 and there's little evidence that anything has changed in a sweeping way. “A successful woman driver will get 10 times the attention that a man will get. So now, what really is important? It keeps coming back to the good ol’ boy network.”
Andretti Autosport is at the forefront of driver development, both men and women, and has qualified more women for the Indy 500 than any team: Patrick on four occasions and de Silvestro and Ana Beatriz once apiece.
“I think it's important for the sport,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “Yeah, we're still searching for that next Danica. And I will say that there's no reason why, you know, we can't have a competitive woman now.”
Andretti acknowledged that it's harder for them to succeed, though, and brings up an entirely different reason. The car itself these days is physically demanding to drive, and young women in particular sometimes struggle to muscle it around the track.
But give a woman a fast enough car and they can be every bit as good as the men.
“My time in IndyCar felt like I got a really great shake at it, and I drove for a lot of great teams. But it's kind of like a stock market: It goes up, it goes down, it goes up, it goes down,” Patrick said. “It, trajectory-wise, tends to be going in an upward fashion, but there will always be these lulls. We can go from five women in the field to none, or one this year.”
Fisher has more Indy 500 starts than any other woman with nine, and for many years she owned her own team.
“If you have good people with good opportunities, that's great,” Fisher said, “but you can't force it because there's too high a risk in this sport.”
That was evident in practice Monday, when Legge was unable to slow as others did in front of her. She hit the rear of Stefan Wilson's car, sending both into the fence. Legge walked away and her team repaired her car for Friday's final practice, but Wilson was left hospitalized with a fractured vertebrae; Graham Rahal has replaced him in his car.
That hasn't dampered the expectations of Legge, whose entire Rahal Letterman Lanigan team has struggled this week. After all, she knows that women will be watching how she does on Sunday.
“It’s really cool to be back here. I forgot how crazy busy it is with so many demands on your time, and I forgot how little time that you get in the car. But it’s amazing,” Legge said. “I just am obsessed with making the most of the opportunity so I can come next year, right? Like, I really want to do as well as that car will allow.”
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