This is the year a woman will win the Indianapolis 500.

If the sport is lucky, that is.

Coming up May 24, this year’s Indy 500, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the first purpose-built race track in the world, already has three female entrants, the largest grouping of such drivers ever at the 2.5-mile oval, and one of them has a solid chance of victory, as good or better a chance than any of the 30 men the women will be up against.

While sophisticated and evolved, men and women around the world have fought for well over a century for equal rights. What happens this Memorial Day weekend in an unlikely small town called Speedway, Indiana, a place surrounded by cow pastures, the political ghost of Dan Quayle and unequaled American tradition and kitsch, could have a huge effect on the future of women in business, industry and sports around the world.

Commercial Point, Ohio’s Sarah Fisher, 28, Venezuelan Milk Duno, 37 and Illinois’ own Danica Patrick, 27, will fly their 800-horsepower open-wheel IndyCars with Honda engines mounted in Italian-built Dallara chassis against the best field of racers to compete at the 500 in over a dozen years.

Of the three, Danica Patrick is carrying the hopes and dreams of many to be the first woman to win Indy, especially following her victory at the Twin Ring Motegi track in Japan last year, the first time a woman ever won a major open-wheel race event.

In 1977, Janet Guthrie was the first woman to qualify for Indy, and 1992 brought the first female Rookie of the Year there, Lyn St. James. In 2005, Danica Patrick became the first woman to ever lead a lap of the world’s richest, best-known and most-prestigious auto race.

Patrick’s exploits in IndyCar this year include a somewhat mediocre 15th qualifying position and 19th place finish at the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., followed by huge moves in the right direction with a fourth-place finish at Long Beach and a fifth at Kansas Speedway just two weeks ago.

Patrick’s team, Andretti/Green Racing, has her everywhere in the mainstream press and public eye as Indy comes along.

She’s on the cover of the June issue of Shape magazine, in Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions, does TV ads for GoDaddy.com and other sponsors and clients, is a frequent talk show guest and just last week was chosen as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Patrick is already the biggest crossover celebrity in the history of American racing. The Rahal/Letterman race team brought her to Indy for the first time, and her appearances on David Letterman’s CBS TV show won her a reputation as an exceedingly smart, engaging, quick, open and candid speaker; in other words, she didn’t give the typical race car driver interview. And her being decidedly attractive hasn’t hurt; she’d be the complete package in any form of show business, of which motor racing is just one.

And she’s the best thing to happen to newly-reconstituted IndyCar since the popular CART series split into two competing circuits in 1996.

With open-wheel racing finally combined, the field at this year’s 500 will unquestionably consist of the greatest open-wheel drivers in the nation, and Danica Patrick winning either the pole position, the race itself — or both, a distinct possibility — could give IndyCar the kick-start it needs to make its way back into the public consciousness, and raise a serious challenge to NASCAR’s dominance of U.S. racing.

Patrick is the single best hope for motor racing’s future in this country; rumors of her moving to Formula 1 next year make her power and influence in the sport and the world of advertising even stronger.

The cocktail party and fundraising circuits of Santa Monica and West Los Angeles have created lasting and real change in the status of women in this country and around the world.

Yet we think it’s great that a tough, taut young woman who wears fireproof underwear to work, has a husband so completely in the background that a lot of people don’t know she’s married, has an office consisting of a gas and brake pedal, gear-shifter and exotic electronic telemetry and TV cameras, gets more than a little grease under her nails and has a team owner named Andretti who spends much of his time trying to control her decidedly snarky mouth and attitude is well-positioned to strike another blow for equality between the sexes … and then some.

No mere man should get the idea that just because a 27-year old 5’1” female fashion-plate, automotive engineer, bikini model and racing driver from Roscoe, Ill., can win the Indianapolis 500 that he could, too.

I know I won’t. Honest.

 

Steve Parker is the automotive blogger for the Huffington Post (www.HuffingtonPost.com/steve-parker), a consultant and contributor for the NBC-TV automotive show Whipnotic and its companion Web site (www.Whipnotic.com), and can be heard live and worldwide every Saturday and Sunday starting at 5 p.m. Pacific time on www.TalkRadioOne.com. His home site is www.SteveParker.com and his column, Tornante, runs exclusively every week in the SMDP.

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