The Frontstretch: The Indianapolis 500 Is Becoming A Little More ... Feminine by Phil Allaway -- Sunday May 30, 2010

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You may have noticed this season that there are seemingly a lot more female racers in the upper echelons of motorsports. For example, this year’s ARCA season opener at Daytona had six women in the field, a record. Ten female racers participated in the open test in December prior to the race. It is said that in a few short years, multiple women in almost every major racing series will the be norm rather than the exception.

At Indianapolis, five women had started the Indianapolis 500 prior to this year (Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick and Milka Duno). This year at Indianapolis, that many women entered the race, driving for various teams, and including two rookies. Four of those women were able to get into the field, although none of them qualified in the top 20. However, rule changes for 2010 have increased the drafting ability of the Dallara chassis, meaning that those drivers who qualified back in the pack have a slightly greater chance this year of keeping up with the leaders than in the past.

The best-qualified of the four women that will be in Sunday’s Indianapolis is 25-year-old rookie Ana Beatriz, a graduate of the Firestone Indy Lights. She will be behind the wheel of the No. 25 Ipiranga sponsored Dallara on Sunday. For those of you wondering, Ipiranga is a borough within the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. In her two years in Firestone Indy Lights driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Beatriz won two races, at the tight 1.33 mile Nashville Superspeedway and the even tighter .875 Iowa Speedway. Both years in the series, she finished in the Top 10 in points, including a third place points finish in 2008.

Danica Patrick is not the novelty she once was in an Indy car as three other women will join her in this year’s Indy 500 field, the most ever to run in the race at one time.

This year, Beatriz has graduated to the Izod IndyCar Series, but is only running a limited schedule. She made her debut in the season opening Sao Paulo Indy 300 in her hometown, starting 22nd and finishing on the lead lap in 13th. On Sunday, Beatriz will start on the outside of Row 7 in 21st, with a four lap average of 224.243 mph.

Another rookie, the Swiss-born Simona de Silvestro, will start in 22nd on Sunday. de Silvestro is running the full season in the No. 78 Stargate Worlds Dallara for HVM Racing. Through five races, she is currently 20th in points. Her best runs have been a pair of 16ths at Sao Paulo and Saint Petersburg.

de Silvestro comes to the Izod IndyCar Series after two successful seasons in the Atlantic Championship (officially referred to as the Cooper Tires presents the Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda). In those two years, de Silvestro won five races and four poles, all but one of those wins and all the poles coming last year, when she finished third in the championship. de Silvestro has run well this season on the road courses, but seems to fall victim to moves from other drivers. For instance, in Saint Petersburg, Simona actually led part of the race, but was spun out in Turn 1 midway through the race. Simona also seems to have more pace in qualifying than during the race.

Prior to signing on to drive in the Izod IndyCar Series, de Silvestro had little to no experience on ovals. As a result, she had to complete an extensive testing program on ovals in the off-season in to be approved to run on them. She passed these tests with flying colors. Unfortunately, in the one oval race so far this season, de Silvestro’s No. 78 was not quite on pace, running towards the back of the pack for most of the race.

In the middle of Row 8, next to de Silvestro is Danica Patrick, now in her sixth year in the Izod IndyCar Series. She needs no introduction. If you have followed the Izod IndyCar Series at all over the past five years, then you’ve undoubtedly noticed the coverage that Danica has gotten in the media.

Over these past few years, Danica has improved slightly, finishing as high as fifth in points (last season). However, this year has been a struggle for Patrick, who simply has not been all that competitive. Danica is not known to be the best racer on road courses, but she ran midpack in the first few races of the year. The only exception was Saint Petersburg, where she came from the back of the field to finish seventh.

At Kansas, Patrick simply could not keep up with the leaders due to an ill-handling No. 7. She eventually finished 11th, but she was two laps down at the end of 300 miles. The month of May at Indianapolis has been no better for Danica. She has been at a loss for words for the lack of speed that her GoDaddy.com Dallara showed in qualifying trim. As a result of the qualifying issues, she has to start 23rd on Sunday, by far her worst ever starting spot in the 500 (her previous worst was tenth in 2006 and last year).

Finally, there is Sarah Fisher. Patrick actually has more starts than Fisher in her Izod IndyCar Series career, but Fisher entered the series five years before Patrick did. Fisher took a different path into the series as compared to her peers. This path went through USAC’s short track series (Midgets, Sprint Cars, etc.) when she was still a teenager. She made her Izod IndyCar Series debut in October, 1999 at Texas Motor Speedway at the age of 19, bringing along personal sponsorship from Mead (now MeadWestvaco).

In 2000, Fisher entered the series full-time driving the No. 15 for Walker Racing. It was a bit of a learning curve at first, but she eventually came into her own, scoring a third place finish at Kentucky. She scored a runner-up finish in Homestead in 2001. However, Sarah was also prone to getting involved in wrecks and having mechanical problems. She failed to finish 12 of her first 21 starts. As a result, she took a part-time ride with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for 2002. Highlights of her time there include a fourth place finish at Nazareth and the first ever pole position for a woman in the series at Kentucky.

Fisher returned to the series after an ill-fated attempt to begin a NASCAR career, but had mostly mediocre runs with Dreyer & Reinbold. After 2007, Fisher was out on her own. This led her to start her own team, Sarah Fisher Racing, in 2008. Today, it is an underfunded team, despite sponsorship from Dollar General. Fisher has limited herself to a mostly oval-based schedule, while having other drivers tackle the road courses that she is quite simply inexperienced on. Graham Rahal drove Fisher’s No. 67 at Saint Petersburg, Barber Park and Long Beach (the team skipped the fly away to Brazil).

On Sunday, Fisher will start her No. 67 in 29th position, the middle of Row 10. Unfortunately, history is not in Fisher’s favor at Indianapolis. In eight previous starts, she has never finished better than 17th, where she finished last years’ event. She has failed to reach the finish in four of her starts, three of those due to crashes. She has only qualified in the Top 15 on two occasions (2001 and 2002) and her starting position is a personal worst at the 2.5 mile oval.

Of course, no look at the women of the Izod IndyCar Series would be complete without mentioning the one woman who failed to make this year’s field, Milka Duno. The much maligned 38-year-old Venezuelan was simply nowhere near fast enough to get her No. 18 CITGO Dallara into the field. And, if you asked any number of IndyCar Series drivers or fans, they might tell you (if you twisted an arm or two) that it might be better without Milka.

Ok, it’s more like there hasn’t been a female racer that has raised the ire of fellow racers as much as Milka has since Arlene Hiss in the mid 1970’s. Duno has a fairly substantial record in motorsports, but very little of it is in open wheel racing. Most of her experience in the United States is in sports car racing. She has a couple of victories in Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototype class, driving the No. 2 CITGO-sponsored Crawford. Duno would typically qualify the car midpack or so in the Daytona Prototype class and start it, but relinquish it at seemingly the first opportunity to teammate Andy Wallace. Wallace would then drive the car up through the field.

Duno first entered the Izod IndyCar Series when her Grand-Am team at the time, SAMAX Motorsport, bought the former Cahill team in 2007. Since then, Duno has started 32 races without recording a single finish on the lead lap. Her best run was a 14th at Chicagoland in 2008. Unfortunately for Milka, she has gained a reputation for being a “rolling chicane” on the track. To alleviate this, teams have employed drivers to serve as coaches for her in the past. Townsend Bell served in this role at SAMAX. Alex Lloyd, Duno’s current teammate, has served a little in this role this year at Dale Coyne Racing.

This coaching has not achieved the desired results. So far this year, Duno has only finished one of the five races. That was Barber Motorsports Park, where she finished four laps down in 24th, second to last on track. The other races saw her run at the back of the field until she pulled off relatively early. It appears that the IndyCar stewards may have been parking her this season whenever they feel that she is a risk to others on the track. For example, according to racing-reference.info, she dropped out at Saint Petersburg after seven laps due to handling. What was not mentioned here was that she had actually spun out all by herself during the parade lap, delaying the start of the race. Also, she was nearly a full lap behind the leader when she pulled out despite a perfectly fine car. It says a lot that there actually is a “ParkMilka” hash tag topic on Twitter.

Milka does have three previous starts in the Indianapolis 500. In 2007, she crashed early on and was credited with a 31st-place finish. She was involved in another incident in 2008, but returned to the race after repairs to finish 15 laps down in 19th. Last year, Duno finished a lap down in 20th.

When the 94th Indianapolis 500 rolls off on Sunday afternoon, maybe you’ll give these four women (sorry, Milka) in the starting field a close look out on the track. Even though they’re all starting in the 20’s, I doubt that they’re all going to finish there. They have all put up decent times in practice and are fairly comfortable in traffic (although Danica’s No. 7 still isn’t handling all that great in race trim). Here’s to a great Indianapolis 500 on Sunday afternoon.

Contact Phil Allaway

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