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IRL: A significant day at the track(s)

IRL: A significant day at the track(s)
Jun 1, 2005, 5:32 AM

Memorial weekend Sunday evening commentary By Bill King From Fernando Alonso's improbable victory in the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring to Dan Weldon earning Michael Andretti his first career victory at Indianapolis to David Grubnic ...

Memorial weekend Sunday evening commentary
By Bill King

From Fernando Alonso's improbable victory in the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring to Dan Weldon earning Michael Andretti his first career victory at Indianapolis to David Grubnic becoming the first non-North American to win an NHRA Top Fuel final to Jimmie Johnson's last lap, Turn 4 outside pass of Bobby Labonte to score a third consecutive Coca-Cola 600 victory at newly "levelgated" Lowe's Motor Speedway, it was as exciting a day of racing as any fan could want.

It was also the day that women race drivers ceased to be a curiosity.

Egregious media blitz aside, Danica Patrick proved this May 29, 2005, to be the real deal - the first woman since Shirley Muldowney to sit in a top flight racecar and to it justice.

Muldowney was a true champion, who toiled in the relative obscurity of 1970s and 1980s drag racing. The 23-year-old Patrick stepped onto the world stage today, overcame a couple of rookie mistakes and was in position to win the revitalized Indianapolis 500.

"I think the race that Danica had today was absolutely amazing," said old-school NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter Sunday evening in Charlotte. "Having been around Indianapolis a little bit myself with drivers like Lloyd Ruby and Foyt, you've got to be a race driver to do what she did today, especially after stalling in the pits then spinning and tearing the nose off the car on that restart. She and her team just did an amazing job."

No question Patrick had the whole package, and that's what is significant about this day.

Team owners are always delighted to ride the avalanche of publicity that attends the hiring of a marketable female race driver. But how many team owners manage to develop these women into consistent front-runners, much less champions. Most of those failures come from not lining up the right sponsorship; some come from a cynical lack of conviction; and some from duplicitous exploitation.

Bobby Rahal broke the mold. He put Patrick on the fast track with a solid development program, and sent the youngster into her first Indy 500 with a real chance to win.

The woman is talented, attractive, intelligent, focussed and supremely confident. Patrick is Desire Wilson, Lyn St. James and Janet Guthrie rolled up into a five-foot-one, hundred pound athletic package that is a race engineer's delight. Where to put the ballast, Nige?

Karting and midgets are two forms of motorsport recently "discovered" by car owners in search of young talent. And an increasing number of these prodigies are female. Patrick is the first of these youngsters to be offered a real chance with a real team in real equipment.

Today, there are other young women at various stages of their careers that are showing promise.

Brit Katherine Legge, 24, won the 2005 Formula Atlantic opener at Long Beach. Another Brit, Susie Stoddart, 22, is driving for Alan Docking in British F3 this season. Aussies Danielle Argiro, 23, and Leanne Tander, 24, are running down-under in Formula 3, with 18-year-old Samantha Reid looking to follow them up that ladder. Kentuckian Deborah Renshaw, 27, is running the Craftsman Truck Series, while Floridian Mishael Abbott, 23, has a ride in the Infiniti Pro Series.

Three 24-year-old engineering graduates are running serious stock car efforts in 2005. Open-wheel veteran Sarah Fisher (Purdue University) is looking to reinvent herself in a Richard Childress Racing-backed effort in the NASCAR West Series. RCR is also backing California Polytechnic State University grad Allison Duncan in Late Models in California. Erin Crocker, who matriculated at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute won an ARCA pole for Ray Evernham this Spring.

For these youngsters Sunday, Danica Patrick took the "woman" out of "woman race driver."

Perhaps a generation too late are the likes of Sarah Kavanagh, looking to break into GP2 at 41. Patty Moise, 44, and Shawna Robinson, 40, both brought excellent credentials to NASCAR and both struggled in less than competitive equipment. However, Jutta Kleinschmidt, 42, has carved out a successful career as a professional rally driver.

Only in drag racing, where the incomparable Muldowney kicked butt are women readily accepted as race drivers, particularly Pro Stock Motorcycle racers Angelle Sampey, a three-time champion at 34, and Karen Stoffer, 41.

Still, Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James succeeded despite the "system".

According to Jim Hunter, "Janet Guthrie, for the equipment that she had, she could drive a racecar. Unfortunately for her, no one would ever put her in a top-flight racecar. I think Janet Guthrie could have been competitive in our sport."

St. James made a career out of marketing herself. A latecomer to racing, St. James worked hard and landed excellent drives throughout a 20-year career by offering car owners and their sponsors great value and by not tearing up their equipment.

Several really talented women have attempted Formula 1, only to run headlong into the old boy club: Desire Wilson, Davina Galica and Giovanna Amati. The late Lella Lombardi ran a dozen grands prix in the mid-1970s, although Wilson was the quickest of the lot.

Interestingly, there were a number of good women stock car racers back in the 1950s: Ethel Flock Mobley, Sara Christian and Louise Smith.

But in the U.S., sports car racing is where women have found the most success over the years. It's where St. James started, but before her were the likes of journalist Denise McCluggage, Susie Dietrich, Evelyn Mull, Donna Mae Mims, Smokey Drolet, Rosemary Smith, Eloise Norris, Pat Mernone and Peg Wylie. St. James contemporaries include Kathy Rude, Deborah Gregg and Cat Kiser.

All could have done with a Bobby Rahal. It's stupefying that it took so many years for a car owner to offer a young woman the opportunity to be in a seriously competitive racecar.

Gudonya, Bobby. Sic 'em, Danica.

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